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Australian family values

Figure 1. Hours in paid work: women with youngest child under 18. Described in text.Initial findings from a new Institute study highlight the ways that parents' workforce participation is influenced by the values and preferences they hold for combining work and family life.

In the 1990s we are seeing rapid changes occurring in the nature, structure and organisation of work. People's decisions and choices about workforce participation and working hours are made in the context of social and economic opportunities and constraints. At a personal level this translates into the values and priorities people hold regarding their family life and their income earning requirements. Sometimes this results in compromises between actual and preferred working hours.

The private decisions people make about their working lives have implications for public policies related to the provision of income support and services such as child care and elder care.

The Australian Family Life Course Study, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 1996, collected information from people in the workforce about their actual and preferred working hours, and from others not in the workforce about their work and family preferences.

Information was gathered from parents aged 25-50 years whose youngest child, in the age groups 0 - years, 5-12 years, and 13-18 years, lived with them in the household. The main focus of this analysis is on mothers with children aged up to 12 years.

Figure 2. Actual versus preferred work hours: women with youngest child 0-4 years. Described in text.Values

The shift from the traditional notion of men as sole breadwinners and women as caring for the children at home and doing the housework is illustrated in responses to the questions asked in the Institute's Australian Family Life Course Study about the values people hold.

Only one in four (23 per cent) of both men and women agreed with the statement: "A husband's job is to earn the money, a wife's is to look after the home and family".

Around two-thirds of men (65 per cent) and women (69 per cent) also agreed that: "Both partners should contribute to the household income".

When it came to the question asked of couples: "Who takes the main responsibility for being the economic provider?", six in ten men and women said that the male partner took more responsibility, three in ten couples agreed that such a responsibility was shared equally, and the remaining couples (just under one in ten) said that the woman was the main breadwinner.

Workforce participation

The age of youngest child clearly affects workforce participation rates for mothers, but is almost negligible for fathers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 1997), overall in Australia in 1997:

  • 52 per cent of mothers in couple families and 34 per cent of sole mothers with their youngest child under the age five were in the workforce;
  • by the time the youngest child is five to nine years of age, 72 per cent of mothers in couple families and 62 per cent of sole mothers were in paid work;
  • by the time the youngest child is aged 10-14 years, 76 per cent of mothers in couple families and 61 per cent of sole mothers were in the workforce;
  • for fathers in couple families, regardless of age of youngest child, 95 per cent were in the workforce.

Of mothers with children under the age of 18 years who participated in the Institute's Australian Family Life Course Study, two-thirds were in the paid workforce and one-third were not in paid work. In contrast, 91 per cent of fathers were employed.

Fathers' participation and preferences

Men's workforce participation and their preferences about working hours have historically been consistent with the fact that full-time work over the life course has been both the norm and the preferred option for men.

However, the economic climate in recent decades, combined with continuing industrial restructuring, has altered the employment opportunities and standard working hours for men.

Overall, 68 per cent of employee fathers and 70 per cent of self-employed fathers were working more than 41 hours per week. About 29 per cent of employees were working longer than 51 hours per week, but almost half (48 per cent) of the selfemployed worked these longer hours.

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