Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's all about time:How busy lives affect families

The principal of Presbyterian Ladies College (Sydney), Dr William McKeith, has said what many of us have been thinking for a long time. The mad pace of modern life is having a negative impact on families. He points out that an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report this year on how Australians use their time indicates that "..we are spending less time playing, sleeping, and eating and drinking, but longer working." The ABS survey shows how patterns of time use have changed and indicates that people are becoming increasingly time poor and that working non-standard hours and bringing work home is having an impact.

His personal comments on the pace of life ring true:

"We can feel it and see it all around us. Hairdressers are often open into the night, international banks are conducting business on combined southern and northern hemisphere time, emails and text messages find us day and night, seven days a week.

"When we adults are busy filling our days and nights with more and more work, where are all the children? Might I suggest that many of the social and emotional challenges confronting our young people are grounded in the work patterns of we, their parents. Parents are not available to supervise the use of the internet and video games, to check on the appropriateness of friendships, to visit the school, to welcome the child in from school. We are tired, stressed, irritable much of the time. Some parents will seek out ways of avoiding contact with their children in order to minimise their exposure to these feelings."

A more worrying feature of the report is that according to the ABS survey approximately 25% of children (17 and under) have a parent living elsewhere (perhaps interstate or overseas) and there are increasing numbers of children in boarding schools who rarely see their parents.

Dr McKeith concludes:
"There is a tension between hours and patterns of work and family values and the care of our children. As a force for the protection of family values and community welfare, government has a role to play. I suspect that in the interests of our children we are well overdue for a realistic appraisal of how we are balancing our work and family lives."

While there are families living in poverty for whom there is no possibility of reduced hours of work if they are to cover the essentials of life (food, basic shelter and daily needs), for many, there are choices to be made. The process used for making life choices may need to place a higher priority on the needs of children and the impact on family life more generally. The issues surrounding why parents are working longer hours are complex, but it would seem that there are choices to be made about careers, the size of mortgages, the importance of overseas holidays, entertainment etc, and that the human costs borne by our families must be considered more seriously.

You can read Dr McKeith's full Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece here or a version that appeared in the Brisbane Times here.

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