Facilitating Fertility and Paid Work: Contemporary Family-Friendly Policy Initiatives and Their Social Impacts in Australasia

By James, Joanne | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Facilitating Fertility and Paid Work: Contemporary Family-Friendly Policy Initiatives and Their Social Impacts in Australasia


James, Joanne, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Abstract

This paper focuses on contemporary public perceptions of the challenges of combining paid work and raising a family, set against the backdrop of concerns about low fertility, structural population ageing and the composition of the future labour force. Australasian policy makers have responded to these issues with various initiatives aimed at assisting people who are raising families and engaging in paid work. The New Zealand Working for Families package, the Australian Family Tax Benefit package, and the two countries' parental leave and women-focused policies are compared, with a focus on cross-national similarities and differences. The most significant difference between the two nations is the lack of a paid parental leave scheme in Australia, but the family-friendly policies are similar in perpetuating tensions between ensuring both present and future labour supply. The policies are aimed at providing incentives to be in paid work when parents have children, but tend to reinforce the notion of work and family as separate spheres, and potentially contribute to social divisions between parents and non-parents by providing cash benefits to families with children. This analysis suggests that Australasian societies may be on the cusp of a more collective articulation of people's obligations to one another and the nation, including the collective consequences of personal lifestyle decisions such as choosing not to have children.

INTRODUCTION

Raising a family and participating in paid work are increasingly recognised as competing demands by many parents in contemporary Western societies (Families Commission 2008; House Standing Committee on Family and Human Services 2006; OECD 2002; OECD 2004). The financial costs of having children, the rising general costs of living, the common physical separation of the spheres of home and employment, and the gendered nature of childrearing and "breadwinning" are issues that many parents juggle on an everyday basis. These issues also frequently form the basis of the decisions by growing numbers of people in OECD nations to delay having children or remain childless. Voluntarily childless people, especially women, commonly experience social criticism for choosing not to be parents, but this negative reaction is often balanced by the increased choices available to them because their employment and non-work activities are not organised around children (Cameron 1997; Maher and Saugeres 2007; Park 2002). The greater career, education, travel and leisure opportunities available in the globalised contemporary world are increasingly being weighed by young men and women against the perceived benefits and burdens associated with parenthood.

Australasian statistics reveal similarities in the social landscapes of New Zealand and Australia as a result of the competing pressures and choices faced by young adults. The numbers of voluntarily childless people in both nations are rising, and total fertility is below levels needed for population replacement, particularly in Australia, where fertility has become an explicit concern for government (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008b; Boddington and Didham 2008; Callister and Didham 2007). Women's participation in both national workforces has increased, yet Australasian labour forces are steadily ageing (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999; Statistics New Zealand 2008a). Australasian governments have responded to these issues with a variety of social policies aimed at the problems faced by people struggling to combine family and career, and at potential deficits in labour supply. In Australia, policy has also recently begun to address sub-replacement fertility.

Besides the historical close relationship between New Zealand and Australia, comparison of Australasian family-friendly policies is particularly relevant in a period where the countries are effectively competing for population and labour force (Hugo 2004:37).

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