The new endangered species


Last week, I went to an intensive workshop in Chicago with nine people from all over the world (Shanghai, Manilla, Buenos Aires, Puerto Rico, Chicago and, of course, Sydney). The company I work for (my day job) runs them periodically whenever they have a particularly demanding and important project. They are great fun, though very intense. I have been to about four of them now and one thing strikes me, no matter where in the world these young, highly educated, highly skilled and highly paid employees come from, they are not having children. Sometimes one or two of the men will have a single child, but I have not met another woman on one of these junkets who has had, or intends to have, children. How can they? All of them confide that they routinely work until ten or twelve most nights.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Last year, I went to a weekend conference of creative advertising  people. One of the speakers, a highly successful young woman, gave us a snapshot of her typical day. It was horrendously demanding and punishingly long. One of the things that happened during that typical day was that a female member of her staff announced she was pregnant and promptly burst into tears. Not because she was pregnant, but because she was terrified such an announcement would cost her her job. As I was retrenched from an ad agency when I was four months pregnant, I sympathised with that anxiety. The woman who was telling the story is the same age as her employee (thirty-four) and confided wistfully that she simply could not imagine how she could fit parenthood into her day.

Last month, I gave a lecture about copywriting to a group of young writers as part of an industry training initiative. After I had finished my very informal talk and was about to depart, one of the young women sidled up to me. She wanted to know how I had managed to combine a career with motherhood. ‘You’re the first woman we’ve seen,’ she said, ‘who has managed to do both.’ The other young women in the group clustered around, but I refused to talk only to them, I insisted this was an issue for everyone in the room, including the young men, and, of course, for the industry.

Globalisation, like it or hate it, is probably both inevitable and irresistible. Yet what it has created is a working world where the companies we work for, and all of us as individuals, are competing, not just against our peers in the city where we live, or even within our country, but against the whole world. This is leading to an extraordinary level of anxiety and to an explosion in working hours, particularly amongst the young and the highly skilled. The cream, if you like, of the crop.

However, this idea that we can endlessly demand more and more from our best and brightest workers as long as we pay them heaps and accord them high status is an extremely short-term strategy at best.

It strikes me that capitalism is in danger of eating itself.

Birth rates all over the developed world are falling. Australia’s current demography, according to a diagram I saw recently, is chillingly and prophetically coffin shaped. I am also aware of more talk in the media (and some recent books) about failed civilisations. The current theory about one ancient, highly developed civilisation, I believe, is that they used wood as fuel and just kept chopping down trees until there were none left. The people who chopped down that last tree, we presume, simply packed their belongings and left their remarkable civilisation behind until it disappeared, ironically enough, into the jungle. The theory is that they must have seen their fate approaching yet seemed incapable of doing anything about it. Is this to be our fate too? Are we going to be the first civilisation to run out of consumers, voters and employees, out of people, in other words?

Yet when governments look at our falling birth-rate or, indeed, (if the tentative young women at the training course, or some of the responses to my last column are anything to go by), if anyone does, the most common response is to look accusingly and exclusively at women. It’s our fault apparently, because we want the right to hopes and dreams, too.

So, what has our government in its wisdom done about falling birth-rates? Offered a $3000 baby bonus. Woo hoo, that’ll make up for all those highflying careers.

And what has it done to ensure they continue to fall? Deregulated industrial conditions, and increased the likelihood that working hours will continue to get longer, for a start. Neglected public schools to a point that many people now believe that to be a good parent you must send your kids to a private school, and the more expensive the better. What effect do John Howard and Peter Costello think that is having on our birth-rate, or haven’t they put the two together yet? They’ve also increased the cost of a university education so that young people are paying off HECS for years. They did make some grand noises about more funding for child care places in the last budget, but neglected to tell us that the funding was unlikely to be of any use because there were no child care centres to house those newly funded places.

Worse, we make parents more responsible than they have ever been; yet create circumstances where it is virtually impossible for parents to do what society disapprovingly thinks they should. The moral panics about porn on the internet, about childhood obesity, about kids playing sport, watching too much TV, about the lack of old fashioned family dinners around the table (the most miserable parenting time in my life was when I conscientiously tried to enforce that one), teenage drinking, drugs, and the competition for your precious darling to be the best and the brightest to vindicate your parenting style, all conspire to make it an almost impossible job. ‘It’s the parents’ responsibility’ goes up the cry whenever somebody somewhere complains about the manners, morals or attitudes of kids today. Maybe it needs to become everyone’s responsibility, if we are actually going to survive.

But to get back to the young women who asked me how I combined motherhood and career, what did I tell them? I told them the truth. I told them I was lucky, I told them I was part of a generation that just took it for granted we’d have kids, and most of us did. I told them that I didn’t see the point of women in the workplace if they just became honorary men. I told them I’d wanted the workplace to change, to become more women and children friendly, but that it seemed I, and women like me, had failed. I told them I was able to do it because I accepted what the Americans call ‘the mommy track’. And I told them that a balanced life means you don’t get all of anything, but that no job was worth not having kids for. I don’t think my words cheered them up very much.

Yet it’s not impossible to make having kids much more attractive than it is. It will involve some really hard thinking on the part of governments and employers, at least in the developed world. They haven’t been prepared to do it up till now, because of a strong ambivalence about uppity women. It demands they think of business and the economy as part of a system, where parents are not isolated units different from everyone else, but part of the whole.

First and foremost we must stop blaming women or even so-called feckless young men; we must stop looking to the past for solutions. However much some people, often religious, conservative, older and male may long for the halcyon days of the past, young highly skilled, highly educated women are not going to go back to the kitchen or the nursery in any great numbers. Not simply because they don’t want to but because, with our falling birth-rate, we simply can’t afford to let them. The fewer children they have, the more we need them in the workplace, the more we need them in the workplace and the longer hours we ask them to work, the less children they have.

How’s that for a neat little conundrum?

But for God’s sake, let’s start thinking differently about the way we are managing things before we chop down that last tree.

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