The Party Of Workers


How the tide has turned. After some brief discussion of work life balance, consumerism and the rise of sea changers, Julia Gillard has brought us back to work. Long, hard work. Gillard has sought to distinguish Labor through the values of work — particularly from the party’s new coalition partner, the Greens.

This certainly plays to popular stereotypes, but not to reality. According to the last two election surveys Greens voters are more likely to be in paid work — and have less free time — than the voters of any other party.

Surely not, I hear you cry. How can a party born of hippies possibly be home to so many workers? The answer is that workers themselves have been changing — and those changes are bringing workers closer to the values of the Greens.

This challenges traditional understandings of work. Greens voters are generally younger, and they tend to have more progressive social values. Listening to much of the political debate you might think this made Greens voters less likely to be workers. But in fact, it is precisely these groups who are most likely to work.

Popular conceptions of young people as carefree and irresponsible hide the reality that most young people need to work. Our social security system makes it increasingly hard not to work, as benefit levels fall and work tests increase. The only group really spared from this is older people, who qualify for the aged pension. More than two-thirds of those over 65 have government benefits as their main source of income, and this group has the lowest participation rate of those old enough to work.

We don’t tend to think of this group in discussions about work because most of us accept that older people should not be forced to work. They are the "deserving poor" and so are entitled to a bit of peace in retirement. That’s fair enough too. But in political terms, it means the Greens base is in the workforce, while the electoral surveys show that the older parties (especially the Nationals) are, perhaps appropriately, home to retirees.

Listening to talk back radio we might also think that most workers had relatively conservative social values, something said to distinguish them from "progressive elites". But not only are progressive values are associated with youth, they are also associated with more equal gender roles. Consistent with this, women who vote Green are the more likely to be in fulltime paid work than their sisters who vote for other parties. It is rising female participation that is at the heart of the growing number of workers in Australia and around the world.

This is also reflected in the Greens recent successes. The electorate of Melbourne is home to more working women than any other federal seat, and Balmain is home to more working women than any other state seat. Indeed, both seats have extremely high participation rates — both because the women in these seats tend to work, and because they are home to relatively few retirees.

It highlights an important trend in politics. The rise of the Greens reflects a profound demographic and political transformation that is being driven by women leaving the confines of the home. Women now outnumber men at universities — and these women are transforming politics.

My colleague Shaun Wilson has found that the traditional dominance of the right in Australia has faded. Where once Australians were consistently more likely to identify as right of centre rather than left of centre, the numbers are now relatively equal. The biggest shift has come from tertiary educated women, who are now a solidly centre-left constituency.

Critics often deride the Greens as middle-class basket weavers because Greens voters tend to have higher incomes. That is true, but it reflects factors that you would think leaders like Abbott and Gillard would respect. Higher incomes are the result of more Greens working (with lots of double-income households) and of high levels of education. It is actually because Greens voters work that they earn more.

Once you account for these labour market factors you find that, on average, Greens voters actually earn less than other voters with similar demographics. That reflects the dominance of Greens voters in the public sector and caring professions (again partly the result of strong support amongst educated, working women).

This is not to suggest that the Greens have a monopoly on workers. Indeed in raw numbers both Labor and the Liberals have more workers voting for them. And Labor’s connection to the union movement creates an important link to workers. But it does suggest we are engaged in an entirely phony debate.

With more women and white collar workers, the values of work are increasingly the values of work/life balance, strong public services, control over work and environmental sustainability. As the major parties battle to make us work harder and longer, remember they are appealing as much to those who used to work, but no longer do, as they are to the generation who actually is working now.


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