Ross Gittins says
Those who whinge about lost production on public holidays are misguided
, and readers won’t be surprised to learn that I agree. Here’s a piece I wrote before Christmas. It was planned as a leisurely holiday piece for the Fin, but the tsunami disaster gave us something more urgent to think about.
In many ways, the Christmas holidays represents the Australian economic problem in microcosm. On the one hand, we expect and look forward to a break from work. Even if we donâ€™t take a holiday, Australians have traditionally taken it for granted that not too much will get done in December and January.
On the other hand, we spend a lot on Christmas presents and they seem to get more lavish every year. If we want to spend more, we need to work more to pay for it.
In the short run, we can bridge the gap with the trusty credit card, but that just means a lot more work to pay it off, some time in the future. It seems as if the only solution is to stop taking those long Christmas breaks and go back to work straight after New Year.
The bigger picture is that Australians collectively are consuming more, saving less and accumulating debt at an alarming rate. The full-time workers among us have managed to keep this process by working steadily longer hours, and by pushing ourselves harder. This process seems to have reached its limit, with full-time working hours stabilising or falling slightly in the last few years. On the other hand, there is an increasing chorus of calls for another round of â€˜reformâ€™, which is usually code for more and harder work.
In saying that there seems to be something going wrong here, I donâ€™t want to launch into another sermon about crass materialism. Iâ€™m all for material abundance, and Iâ€™m confident that with improvements in technology we can, if we choose, have a higher material standard of living as well as doing more to preserve the natural environment. (Judging by Australiaâ€™s failure to ratify Kyoto, weâ€™re not making the right collective choices at the moment, but thatâ€™s an issue for another day).
But for most of the 20th century, increasing material abundance went along with shorter working hours, longer holidays and generally improving working conditions. In the 1980s and 1990s, all of this went into reverse, with working hours getting longer and workplace stress increasing. By some measures, Australian full-time workers now work harder even than Americans, and much more than the Japanese.
At the same time, the trend towards early retirement (voluntary and involuntary) continued. One way out of this pattern is â€˜downshiftingâ€™. In effect, this usually means withdrawing from the full-time workforce and getting by on a mixture of savings and odd-jobs. This is a reasonable choice for individuals, but not one that our current economic structure can make available to everybody.
As a result, the typical middle-class household lifecycle now has a couple of decades in which long hours of paid work are combined with peak responsibilities for child care, followed by a rapid winding down into an â€˜empty nestâ€™ retirement.
All of this doesnâ€™t seem to make much sense, as Treasurer Costello and others have noticed. But calls for people to delay retirement arenâ€™t going to have any impact in a society where career structures are predicated on pushing workers to the limit, and getting rid of those who donâ€™t make the grade. And this structure is sustained by the fact that peopleâ€™s perceived expenditure needs are such as to keep their noses to the grindstone. In this respect, the boom in housing prices, which has pushed repayments to record levels, has been at least as important a factor as growth in discretionary spending on consumer goods.
Only structural reform in the labour market is likely to produce the kinds of changes that are needed. But the reforms that are being pushed at present, such as Australian Workplace Agreements with provisions to cash out annual leave and overtime pay, are generally moving us in the wrong direction.
For most of us, especially those with school-age children, it would make a lot more sense if we could take a couple of weeks more leave each year and make it up by retiring a year or two later. Thereâ€™s no easy way of organising this and until now, the bulge in the workforce produced by the baby boom has made it unnecessary.
Weâ€™re constantly being urged to aspire to â€˜worldâ€™s best practiceâ€™. Australian holidays used to be the best in the world – at least it certainly seemed so. We should take a few more of them.