Unbalanced work on work-life balance

Donatella Cavagnoli
Email: d.cavagnoli@latrobe.edu.au

The issue of work life balance has been a particular point of public discussion for some years, yet it is a discussion that is often bogged down in confusion. The Age’s recent article (‘Not all work, no play’ 8th of Feb) was a good example of why our analysis of this matter needs to be more careful than has often been the case.

Recent ABS data indicate that Australian work fewer hours in full-time jobs today than they did 20 years ago. This prompted Professor Mark Wooden from the Melbourne Institute to paint a rather rosy picture of where we are going with this issue. The reality is more mixed, and more in-depth analysis such as the recent Australia@work gets to the heart of what is really going on.

A key issue is that the evidence indicates the decreased average working week of the last few years does not reflect an absolute increase in people’s demand for leisure. Australians are not buying more leisure, and they are not working fewer hours, and so alternative explanations must be sought.

Prof. Wooden commented on the aggregate result which looks bright, but only if the factors leading to this result are not analyzed separately. Firstly, the data show that since 2001, evening, public holiday and week-end work has increased, and 23% of employees always work both weekdays and week-ends. 48.8% of men work longer hours than the standard 35-40 hours a week, while 21.1% of women work longer than the standard working-week (the self employed are excluded from these figures)

Secondly, managers, administrators, and associate professionals are the occupations that worked the longest average weekly hours, and received the highest average weekly earnings (ABS 4102.0, 2006). So they have the money to buy leisure, but they work longer, and they only represent a third of the total full-time working population.

Thirdly, the average working hours for full-timers has decreased from 46 in 2001 to 45 in 2007, but the hours are still well above the  38 hours per week, or the ‘standard working week’, of 20 years ago.

The fact is that one group of workers, such as managers and administrators and professionals, mainly males, are at the top-end of the earning distribution, have a high percentage increase in their earnings, and they work very long hours. They are a small group but it is this group that explains why average weekly earnings are increasing.

Finally, when the total number of hours of work is averaged with the total number of full-time workers, the aggregate result both for the average of earnings per hour, and for the average hours of work per week, looks bright yet in reality the figures have been badly skewed by a privileged section of the workforce.

So, why still no play?

I believe that Australia has not shifted away from the belief of the 1980s of ‘working to live’ as opposed to ‘living to work’ but, despite the assertions of Professor Wooden, work carries far more prestige and ‘status’ than leisure in Australian society.  The search for status is via overtime work.

Even in the early 1990s, when the supply of jobs was tight, there was still a safety net system in place to maintain equilibrium in the price of time. However, the subjective price of leisure was still perceived to be much lower than the average minimum wage. The general process of casualisation and outsourcing leads people to seek for promotion and impress the boss; but the reason is to be found in the fear of losing status, which leads to accepting the given (by the boss) working conditions and hours.

The slight increase in leisure time experienced in the last few years was perhaps unintentionally driven by John Howard’s ruminations on the value of time with family and friends; Howard’s words concerning the ‘barbecue stoppers’ had a ‘moral’ effect on people, so that some (subjectively) valued leisure, and chose more of it to gain rather than to lose status.

Another reason is that Australians cannot afford to be with their families. If we do not buy leisure it might be that we lack the money to do so, which would require a higher minimum wage, and/or government benefits, such as child-care benefits, paid maternity leave or paid parental leave, or better health and education benefits.

Or there can also be a physiological reason: people become addicted to work, especially with the general increase in job satisfaction and after years of long hours at work. Addiction leads to buy more of a ‘drug’ whatever the real price might be and despite the costs imposed on others, but addiction changes the subjective price, so that Australians mis-perceive the value of time.

The fact is that, if we do have enough money to buy leisure, it is only when hours of work are subjectively valued at a price greater than the real, objective price (the wage rate), that individuals prefer paid work to time with their family or friends. 

All explanations suggest that laws or regulations need to be implemented to prevent a situation where resources are wasted, no extra income is really produced, and hours of our much-needed leisure are lost.

Hard-working people are the ‘pumping-heart’ of every society and every economy, but hard work is for home and market. Society is not better off when we prefer work to leisure.

By: Donatella Cavagnoli
Associate Lecturer and PhD Student
Department of Economics and Finance
La Trobe University, 3086 Bundoora – Vic
Email: d.cavagnoli@latrobe.edu.au