|Issue No 50||14 April 2000|
@work in the e-century
Marian Baird takes stock of how far we've come, or not come, in terms of our working life.
Apart from a whole new vocabulary associated with work, some aspects of working life have changed considerably, others surprisingly less so. The central concern of workers at the turn of the 21st century seems to be time: hours of work, not enough family or personal time and the blurring of the distinction between time spent at work and time at home.
In the 21st century, life in the fast lane of work demands that we know our dot.coms from our e-business, that we know that IT stands for information technology (and $$), that in the modern office people are likely to 'hot desk' (that is not 'own' their own desk, but turn up for work and use any spare desk), that you can apply for jobs over the internet, that because your hours of work are long and open ended you need to order your dinner from work. At least you can conduct your meal-time conversation with your partner via e-mail. Really, who needs to leave their work station? Australian workers are spending more and more leisure time at their desks it seems, with recent research suggesting that it costs Australian business $1 billion per year for the time workers spend surfing the net. This has raised an ethical problem for employers - should they be able to check into people's private lives@work? From an employee's point of view it demonstrates once more that the barriers between our work and home, our public and private lives, are dissolving.
So, what does working life in Australia look like at the end of one century and the beginning of another? At Federation, Australia's workforce numbered just over 1.5 million; we now have a workforce approaching 9 million. According to our historical statistics, at the turn of the 20th century most people either worked on the land, in trade and transport or in manufacturing. It's hard to say these days which industry or industries most Australians work in. The statistical truth is that Australians now work in a wide variety of industries, and it is not one industry that dominates. The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in November 1999 15% of the workforce were in the retail trade, 12% worked in manufacturing, 11% in property and business services and 9% in health and community services. Perhaps most surprising was that despite all the rhetoric about tourism and changing life styles, just 5% of Australians worked in accommodation, restaurants and cafes, and this was closely followed by 4.8% who worked in agriculture.
Compared with the range of industries we work in, our occupational spread is more concentrated. Nearly 30% of Australians are professionals or associate professionals and another 7% are managers. Just over 20% work in clerical, sales or service work and 13.5% are tradespersons. But what's in a name? Of this last group called tradepersons women only represent 1.4%! On the other hand, women represent half of all professionals but they also dominate the mid and lower level sales, clerical and service work.
The number of women@work has increased, but not as dramatically as we might think. At the turn of the 20th century, women constituted 20% of the paid workforce. At the turn of the 21st century, women constitute 43% of the paid workforce. Women's work at the turn of the 20th century was irregular, seasonal, casual and temporary. For some women not that much has changed. Child care and sexual harassment were and still remain troublesome work issues, and today, discrimination against pregnant women is a worrying trend.
Changing jobs, or job mobility, is apparently another feature of e-century work. In the last years of the 20th century, 14% of Australians changed their jobs every year. Not surprisingly, but it's nice to have statistics to confirm this, the 20-25 year olds are the most mobile with one-quarter of them changing their jobs every year. The 55-59 year olds are least likely to change their jobs, and married people are less mobile that non-married people.
So, where to from here? For many, working life is already running at fever pitch and projections are for labour shortages and skill shortages. People are working longer hours but over a shorter period of their life, changing jobs more frequently and just coping with the work and family imbalance. In the 1800s the union movement's struggle to distinguish work from play led to the movement for the 8 hour day. However, the shorter working week largely benefited skilled men, and didn't resolve the problems for women and the semi skilled. It seems that even with computers, e-business and smart cards, (or perhaps because of?) we still haven't properly resolved the work/time/life balance. The family/work imbalance is being reflected in many parts of life, and one socially important consequence is in declining birth rates in Australia. Current birth rates are below the population replacement rate, and we might speculate that this represents a major disjuncture between the last century and this century.
What do we want from work? What do we want from life? What do we want from work-life in the 21st century? Take some time to think - when you can.
Marian Baird is a Lecturer, Work & Organisational Studies, University of Sydney
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