Photo: Kirstin Sinclair
A couple of years ago I was having lunch with one of Goldman Sachs’ Australian managing directors. He’d recently taken a long leave of absence as an example to his workaholic foot soldiers, and was encouraging other staff to do the same – particularly men.
What the bank had found was that if men didn’t take paternity leave, long service leave, or in fact any leave, then women were far less likely to take proper maternity leave. The firm, like many others, had become stuck in a culture where employees saw overwork as a badge of success, and time off as a sign of weakness.
His example speaks to why the Paid Parental Leave Scheme (PPL) – which seems likely to get up – will not be enough to fix our current workplace culture.
The Paid Parental Leave Scheme is indeed, as Tony Abbott has said, a ‘watershed social reform’ (if it gets through). It’s recognition (to the tune of $5.5bn a year) that there is a massive reality gulf between the demands of modern workplaces and the lives young people want to lead – raising families, staying healthy and happy and doing something for their communities.
But the reality is that many women won’t take the full PPL on offer. In the current climate where unpaid over time is seen as the norm and taking long periods of leave is often framed as an act of disloyalty and career negligence, many women will be too scared to take six months off work.
It’s for the same reasons that only about 20 percent of Australian workers who are lucky enough to accrue long service leave actually take the leave.
We have become obsessed with being busy.
Many commentators have written recently about the culture of ‘busyness’ – most famously Tim Kreider with his New York Times article ‘The Busy Trap’.
"Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day," he wrote.
His account of our modern cult of busyness went deeper even than blaming bosses and companies. Instead, Kreider wrote, our current ‘histrionic exhaustion’ may be a very peculiar coping mechanism that covers up a deeper truth–most of our new economy jobs don’t produce anything essential to our survival and so don’t actually matter. From Kreider’s perspective our busy workplaces are hives of pointless anxiety engaged in an unimaginative and commoditised form of play.
In the UK, David Cameron recently introduced a national happiness index–surveying 200,000 people about issues to do with wellbeing.
You can view this as a cynical attempt to drum up positive numbers by a government whose austerity measures meant the key economic indicators were all poor, but it also points to a recognition that GDP growth is not the only measure of national well being.
Economists do not deserve to have a monopoly over how we order our societies and measure success – or the trajectory of our lives.
Recently Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picke’s book The Spirit Level claimed that in many developed economies an inflection point has been reached. The book argued that many nations ‘have got to the end of what economic growth can do for the quality of life.’
Growth is instead feeding a few obscenely wealthy people, while the standard of living for the rest of the population flatlines or in many cases gets worse.
Its authors wrote that "mainstream politics . . . has abandoned the attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society".
By and large their analysis of life in Britain and the US applies to Australia too.
More recently, economic historian Robert Skidelsky wrote in How Much is Enough about the lack of vision in modern politics. The function of religion as an institution editorialising on the meaning of community has fallen away, and many of the great utopian visions of the 20th century have collapsed so spectacularly that we really have almost given up on cooperating as a society to work out how to make life liveable.
In the absence of ideas, we’ve let money become the primary ordering force. The capitalist system is a powerful tool that works to order self-interest. But economies should be at the end of the day about human outcomes.
We don’t seem to have even a rough consensus on what these outcomes should be.
The PPL attempts to redress this balance. It effectively says it’s OK not to sacrifice your entire life to work so long as what you do when you’re not chained to your desk is have children.
But there are plenty of other reasons why we might choose not to work relentlessly.
In Latin cultures when people get tired and hot in the afternoon they don’t keep working, they go to sleep.
The Spanish have decided that sleep is in some contexts more important than money. Recently we’ve begun to realise that the environment might be more important than money too.
It’s time to remember that we are also more important than money.
There are plenty of reasons other than childbirth that people might want to take sabbaticals – to write, travel, learn, get their health back before it’s too late, spend time with often neglected family and friends. Only a small proportion of workplaces offer unpaid sabbaticals – perhaps it should be a right?
Perhaps workplaces should make more effort with their employees to enable them to work remotely and within more flexible hours, so they can see the sun when it’s shining and talk with their kids when they’re awake. Why else would we have spent so much effort developing the internet and mobile computing?
A society that defines itself in terms of economic metrics alone and is only comfortable debating the meaning of life in those terms – cost of living, debt, surplus and interest rates – is a society that has given in to a politico-economic nexus that frequently demonstrates a dyslexic comprehension of what makes life worth living. It is a society that doesn’t have the energy to contemplate its own social infrastructure and social technology and has accepted a visionless future defined only by an increasingly unhappy, unfulfilling sensation of greed.
Life is for the living – and we need to start looking at indicators and outcomes that demonstrate we’re working to create full lives, not just mindlessly perpetuating a theoretical myth of endless economic growth that benefits very few if anyone at all.
The PPL should be seen as the start of a conversation about the mission creep in our national politics, and our approach to the work/life balance – not an expensive Band-Aid that will pretend to fix a problem that is much bigger and deeper than maternity leave.