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Getting a family-friendly society

By Leslie Cannold - posted Monday, 30 May 2005

What we’ve got, to use Associate Professor Barbara Pocock’s language, is a collision between work and family. What we’d like, and indeed what women and men caring for children or ageing parents are crying out for, is a balance between work and family responsibilities.

As the subtitle of a conference paper on the problem “time crunch or yuppie kvetch?” suggests, not everyone accepts there is a problem, or at least one widespread enough to merit concern. But for the most part in Australia we’ve been lucky as the bulk of debate here has focused not on the existence of the work and family collision, but on the best way to solve it.

Australian researchers deserve a great deal of credit for this situation. Longitudinal studies, like the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia study (HILDA), and the 20 year Women’s Health Australia study, have provided and will continue to provide commentators and policy-makers with information about the factors that contribute to work and family pressures.


But while such data will continue to be essential to the development of appropriate, effective and sustainable policy, it will take more to develop the constituencies - among bureaucrats, decision-makers and the general public - to affect change. Academics and educators will continue to play a critical role in debates about the sort of public policy and workplace alterations necessary to accommodate not only working men and women with current family responsibilities, but those who want or expect to have such responsibilities in the future.

Transferring aspirations into action demands that citizens are capable of thinking outside the box: separate their knowledge of what is from what could be. It also requires citizens with a sophisticated understanding of the forces that constrain and facilitate social change - an understanding available primarily through the study of labour and social history. Academics and educators play a vital role in creating this sort of educated public.

Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, is perhaps best known for drawing the distinction between what is, (a descriptive statement) and what ought to be, (a moral statement). Society’s power-brokers, those with an interest in maintaining the work and family status quo, have a vested interest in denying Hume’s “is-ought” distinction - in convincing the populace that the way the world is today is the only way it could ever have been and can ever be. In contrast, philosophers and feminists, academics and educators, among others, play a vital role in cultivating the optimism, imagination and idealism necessary to conceive of and struggle towards a vision of Australia’s work and family balance as it ought to be.

Historical knowledge will also be critical to our achievement of our work and family aspirations. Educators need to ensure their students understand the conditions that led to feminism, environmentalism, Indigenous activism and the emergence of unions. With this historical perspective students can draw parallels between the past and present, make sense of the political positions of the major players in public debates and the attitudes they hold, and glean from this a general understanding of the social conditions and forces that inhibit and facilitate social change.

Educators at the primary, secondary and tertiary level have a vital role to play in ensuring we get the family-friendly society to which most of us aspire. We must describe the present, but situate it in the forces and struggles of the past. Most importantly, we must maintain our own optimism and idealism, and foster that of our students so that together we can look past the collision of the present and envision a future where balance reigns.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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