You have here touched on two aspects of life in 2007’s Australia:
[i] The rapidly worsening lack of discretionary time for so many people now, even for pensioners/retirees and the unemployed.
Gosh, imagine how pressed they might be if they actually had to work for money 40-50 hours a week, plus do all the other things that disproportionately fall to those in paid work, such as raising kids and keeping voluntary organisations going. Even for those who genuinely do have a lot on, there is an important distinction made by Michael Bittman, Robert Goodin and others between discretionary time and free time (pdf).
Discretionary time is what we have left after we’ve done enough to earn money, perform household chores and engage in sufficient personal care (eg sleeping). Admittedly, some of the arguments as to what constitutes enough are contentious; but the overall point is a strong one: because many people choose to do more than the minimum necessary across a range of generally essential activities their free time, the time in which they have no commitments, is much less than their discretionary time. Using a 1992 Australian time use survey, they estimate that discretionary time is two to three times as long as free time.
Last week’s HREOC report It’s About Time had pages of suggestions for more laws to send us all home to the family (it’s almost enough to make me feel nostalgic for the left of old, with its complaints about the family as a source of patriarchal oppression, rather than left of today, which sees it as yet another opportunity for more taxation and regulation).
Though its broad agenda is similar, the Relationships Forum Australia report also released last week does contain statistics that should give us pause before seeking legal change. For example, it cites Australia Survey of Social Attitudes data showing that most people think long hours are a matter of choice (those actually working long hours thought this too).
And as I have reported in a previous critique of the familist agenda there is evidence consistent with choice being available and exercised, from the HILDA survey, in people reducing their hours over time. Panel studies like HILDA are invaluable in correcting the illusions created by snapshot-in-time ABS data – just because a quarter of full-time workers report working long hours in consecutive surveys does not mean it is the same people in each survey. So even if we accept that long hours are actually harmful to family relationships (and even that is not as clear as it would intuitively seem) they are surely only likely to be harmful if persistent over a long period of time. If a relationship can’t stand a period of late nights at the office, it wasn’t very strong to begin with.
Yes, a lot of people are busy and do feel pressed for time. But that is mostly because they are trying to achieve a lot in life. Reports like HREOC’s It’s About Time are wrapped in concern for families, but there is an illiberal view of the world behind it: that other people have their priorities wrong, and it is up to HREOC’s taxpayer-funded bureaucrats to set them straight.