Prof. Sandel [in “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good”] makes almost no mention of the importance of family, which is an enormous pity as this is an obviously critical issue in social cohesion and feelings of attachment within society. I must declare upfront that I have strong views on this which may challenge the views of some readers as it is unlike much of what has been written in recent years on the subject.
If a personal lens of perspective that has been built up over the last half century is applied then readers may reject my views immediately. However, that would be an error because, if the above is correct, and our sense of contribution and belonging within society deprioritises paid employment as I believe it will, then there is plenty of opportunity for the role of family to grow into that space. Nonetheless, some may allow deep guilt for the present or recent past to overshadow the discussion.
We cannot change the past, but if we are honest about it, we are privileged to have an opportunity to impact the future for the better.
So I would ask the reader to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and then as you begin to read look to the deeper meaning in my views rather than reacting without reflection.
Australia’s recent Federal budget focused heavily on female issues as a political response to the pressure the Caucasian middle-aged male dominant conservative Government was under for failing to respond to the outpouring of emotion, especially from women, at high profile gendered violence and sexual harassment stories that were in the media over the preceding 6 months.
One of the main budgetary measures was a $1.7 Billion boost to childcare as well as very significant funding to build skills in industries dominated by women including aged care. A separate budget women’s statement said “Increasing women’s workforce participation is an economic and social imperative”.
Now I am well aware that this is getting into an area that has strong ties to the feminist movement, with very good reasons related to the history of misogyny and prejudice in the workplace, but I really believe we need to pause to ask whether this really is what is best for society or indeed what society wants.
Here I need to separate first the gender element. As a former world-renowned scientist and heterosexual male who retired at 34 years of age to devote myself to my family when our first child was born, I wholeheartedly support programs to achieve equality of opportunity, pay and rights for working women. Anyone even remotely familiar with my writing will know that is not in question. What I am really talking about here is whether it is best for society for parents of pre- and school-aged children to be encouraged to do more paid employment hours and thus spend more hours with the family apart including by outsourcing the raising of their children to childcare organisations.
Leaving aside whether the evidence really exists that parents want to work more hours in paid employment, research needs to be conducted into why it is that some (or many, as the case may be) wish to work more hours and whether they would, in an ideal world, spend fewer hours in paid employment if they felt they had a free or equal choice.
In other words, is there a real desire to work more hours by parents of children, and if there is, is that really what they want for themselves and their families?
If it is not really what they would prefer but it is a response to other issues, such as the long-running housing affordability crisis or growth in precarious employment conditions, then the real underlying issues that are affecting women and families are not being addressed by facilitating their working of more hours in paid employment.
I do not doubt that the issues here are deeply ingrained in our societies. I have developed an impression over the years through my reading and discussions with other parents that many women carry guilt that being part of a parenting couple they feel unable to devote more time and energy to children. The women carry the guilt because they apply the gender stereotype that it is mainly their fault as that is primarily their role.
I obviously do not agree with that, at all, not least because I consider myself as good a parent as any other father or mother. I do not believe that females are better equipped to be primary caregivers, and I take offence to any suggestion of that when I see it.
I wonder, however, whether many ‘traditional nuclear family’ mothers of young children work because they feel that there is no chance that the decisions over the division of labour with their husband will be based on pragmatism and fairness but instead will be done automatically along gender stereotypical lines.
Thus I wonder whether, if those decisions in all families were based on genuine pragmatism and fairness, because society had progressed to that point, whether families would really seek to increase the cumulative number of hours worked by parents.
The Australian Federal Government along with other Governments around the world say that a major reason for these reforms is to improve productivity in the economy. Many of these programs aim to ensure that more of the income from those extra hours of paid work are retained by the family instead of being lost through regressive taxation or reduced Government assistance, or in additional costs such as childcare.
Critically, these barely scratch the surface on what are the full costs of those extra working hours. They are simply dollar values on a financial balance sheet as if it is purely transactional. But the consideration includes intangibles which are likely more significant.
Decisions to outsource child raising tasks are not just about the affordability of childcare. The first decision is how much, if at all, we wish to outsource the raising of our children to others. Now some families are fortunate to be close with extended family who are pleased to take on that childminding role, and often those arrangements will provide a richer environment for the children because of the obviously deeper and ongoing emotional connection with their family carers. However, it can come at a cost especially to elderly grandparents who can feel used and experience a reduction in their perceptions of personal freedom in their latter years.
In my experience most parents who decide to place a higher priority on family than on career and earning income have stories of extremes in the other direction, and often share observations of large numbers of parents dropping children at opening hours and collecting them at closing from childcare.
At a party just a few years ago I met a couple who had a three year old girl who had been in daycare from the minimum age of 6 weeks. They were a typical ‘high-flying’, upwardly mobile couple who were a lot of fun in a social setting. The mother was animated in her discussions about childcare where she dropped her daughter at opening and collected her at closing time every weekday. The problem she was having was that her daughter was surprisingly energetic when collecting her which was a disappointment to the couple because they wanted to simply feed the little darling and put her to bed. The mother had an argument with the daycare staff saying that her daughter should not be allowed to sleep after lunch along with the other children. The staff said that their little girl was so tired after lunch and they felt bad for keeping her from sleeping while all of the other children did. The mother angrily told them it was only due to ‘peer pressure’ that she wanted to sleep and that she should not be allowed to sleep under any circumstances!
That is a true story from the mother directly. However, discussions with childcare workers over the years have confirmed for me that this situation is not uncommon, that working parents are so fatigued on coming home from work that, after collecting children from childcare, they simply wish to feed and bathe their little ones and put them straight to bed. If that is what occurs for 5 out of 7 days of the week then surely it is not a controversial statement but reality that for these children this is not what would be generally considered a rich or nourishing home life.
Now I am pleased that we live in a country where it is a personal choice on how we deal with very many issues. I would not like to live in a society where people were not free to make the choices that this couple was making, but that does not mean that I want to see Government policy encourage more of these behaviours from people. Moreover, I think that any empathetic human being would immediately realise that there are hidden costs in that situation which will emerge in the years ahead.
Our own family view is that there has never been a period of more rapid change for humanity, so active and thoughtful parenting has never been of greater value to the psychological, emotional and learning development of our children. The more quality time we parents give our children, the better equipped they will be to deal with challenges of their time and thus the more likely they are to lead impactful and satisfying lives.
In this day and age where most things are analysed on a spreadsheet, where a CEO of a supermarket chain explains discounting as “investing in price”, I will explain our own views as such:
Any time spent giving energy directly to family rather than earning income is an investment in families and especially the next generation, and we prefer to invest in our sons above anything else.
Many contemporary parents have responded to this trend by encouraging the participation of their children in many extracurricular activities, possibly as a subconscious need to prove that their children are not missing out on opportunities as a result of their own hectic lifestyles, but also as a benefit of the extra income as many of these activities are very expensive. It also serves as an introduction to the competitive, ‘winner takes all’ society which their parents are striving to succeed in.
Even here, though, I have come to question the benefits to the children of being so active in post-curricular activities and whether benefits are outweighed by costs. When I was a child in the 70s and early 80s I was a good sportsman, but like most Australian kids I played one sport per season – football (in my case rugby league) in Winter and cricket in Summer. Even though each year I played in the representative teams, at most I trained 3 times a week, but most often twice weekly. Critically, however, training times were always centred around family life and children’s schedules; in primary school that meant that our coach (Mr. Fry) would finish work early to train our team at 3pm immediately after school, and even in high school I never finished training later than 6 pm. It was understood that children needed to get home by dark, eat, enjoy a little family time and relaxation together, and then get to bed early for a good night’s sleep.
I suggest, also, that many employers also recognised the contribution their employees were making in their communities by coaching children, and so leaving early for such reasons was respected not frowned upon.
In my experience with my own sons, even from the age of 9, team or group training times are decided around adult (work) schedules and rarely finished before 7 pm. That is the preference of most parents, not just the coaches. It was not before late primary school (at around 11 years of age) that our sons’ routine weeknight bedtime was pushed back from 7.30 to 8pm, so group sports have always presented a challenge to our children-centric family lifestyle.
My observation of recent decades is that in most nations technology and culture has resulted in a continual encroachment of employee’s work life into their broader lives – or a ‘crowding out’ of their personal lives. It is not difficult to understand the benefits of this to employers who are benefitting from even more committed employees who define themselves more and more by that role, along with more and more work hours which are not paid for. In some ways I have a unique view of that in that I was a young professional at the edge of technological innovation as the internet first became ubiquitous in universities (I had a professional website on FW Crayfish Diseases in 1995, and later a blog on the RE house price bubble), then in workplaces, and then in homes.
I recall in those latter years of the previous century employees feeling the significant pressure that continual electronic communication brought with it. But then I retired from the workforce as a young man, and I have observed how these issues have progressed amongst friends and across broader society with some objectivity. Those pressures have continued to grow, but most now do not know or remember how it was before email and smartphones. The consequent culture change shows up in many forms in many workplaces.
Several personal experiences are relevant here. Some years back I attended several Christmas parties where the Country lead for this multinational took considerable time to acknowledge partners present in the knowledge that time their employees spent away from their homes represented a sacrifice for families and personal relationships. She gave heartfelt thanks to the partners as representatives of the broader family. However, in recent years cost cutting and creeping culture change led to the Christmas party being only open to employees, in effect dropping the aspect of the party which acknowledged the broader, richer lives of employees and thanking employees with partners for those personal sacrifices. Instead the evening Christmas party became yet more time that employees spent away from families or partners to be seen to be ‘team players’ for their employer. I found this to be a significantly retrograde development. Of course if cost-cutting really is critical there are many inclusive ways of thanking staff and their partners or families.
When actions or behaviours that have been associated with a certain aspect of workplace culture are changed, then the culture has changed.
The second experience relates to how increasing stress from modern workplaces had been continually consuming more of the energy of adults thereby encroaching on home life by leaving them, the leaders of their families, with less energy to devote to family. My wife’s workplace and/or work area has been through almost continual review for the past 5 years which has involved three major and prolonged structural reviews, two of which required her to reapply for her job. The most recent review, during a once in 100 year pandemic, was perhaps understandable. But what seems little appreciated is that the continual change in these organisations leaves their employees stressed and drained so that when genuine crises occur, as they will from time to time, they are already low on drawable reserves of resilience.
There has been little respite, also, because even annual leave on the first two occasions was impacted when my wife had to ring in from family holidays in Italy to find out whether she still had a job (the second of those occasions was during the filming of our House Hunters International episode). Because of the inherent anxiety involved in these processes, it effectively took much of the benefit of the family holiday away from her and it impacted the whole family. My dear wife, at the same time, has also had to battle the issues that I raised in “Racial Prejudice And Bias: A matter of degrees“. These issues have impacted my wife and our family deeply and in ways that I will never be able to discuss openly.%
All of these issues are inline with the continual ‘crowding out’ of employee’s personal lives by employers. However, now in the Great Reset era, portended by the COVID-19 pandemic, introspection by many has seen these dynamics questioned and challenged.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the start of the Great Reset era has brought about a reframing of work-life balance especially for families. During lockdowns, with professional parents mostly working from home, there was a noticeable increase in family togetherness while exercising or picnicking in parks and in general strolls around the neighbourhood as in the Italian passion, the passeggiata.
At the time I commented to my wife that, as long as our measures manage to protect most Australian families from experiencing personal loss, then I would not be surprised if this period were very fondly remembered by very many children as a period of genuine connection within their families; a time when they received the most attention ever from their parents.
In the fullness of time I believe it will be recognised as the catalyst for a ‘reset’ in family connection, a major aspect of the Great Reset.
The changes brought on by measures to combat COVID-19 were profound for the work-home life balance. The working from home phenomenon out of the COVID-19 pandemic reversed the work encroachment on personal and family life in a rather counter-intuitive manner, all the more remarkable when consideration is given to the recent trend of increasingly fluid and de-personalised workspaces through, for example, ‘hot desking’ (and even ‘hot officing’ pioneered by WeWork). On the one hand working from home might be seen as the ultimate in encroachment of work life into home life, but it has almost certainly worked in the opposite direction. Through working from home, and especially video conferencing, everybody has seen a glimpse into the lives of everybody else. At first, I suspect, many felt a little more vulnerable for this alone, but the collective experience has allowed everybody to experience that vulnerability together. The experience is best summed up by the glimpses into personal lives in zoom meetings by just seeing personal spaces in the background, and in having children or pets come into the background or into the foreground.
Overall it has been an overwhelmingly positive development as it has served as a continual reminder to everybody that all work colleagues – whether peers, subordinates or superiors – are people with lives that extend well beyond their roles as employees, which in many ways has been critical in feeling connected with others and with humanity through this very challenging period.
Observing commentary through Bloomberg’s various channels already suggests to me that employees are expressing changed values and goals which will become typical in the Great Reset era. Employees are pushing back on what has been this continual encroachment into their lives by employers and this will demand a significant culture change.
This culture change must be driven from top-level leadership, certainly, but mid to high level managers, responsible for perhaps 30 to 100 employees via direct reports, must be the focus for implementation. What will be required is a mindset that says that the employer understands that while an important source of belonging and contribution in society is gained from being actively engaged in worthwhile paid employment, it is only one facet of an individual’s identity and contribution to society. This will require acknowledgment by middle management that most workplaces are not actually involved in saving the world from catastrophe – after all we have already learned through the pandemic that those people are the nurses, supermarket staff and vaccine developers – even if that middle management may be trying to create some sort of sense of that to have a committed workforce that is ultimately being used to elevate their own careers.
There is no doubt, also, that business interests adversely affected by these disruptive changes from the COVID-19 pandemic are arguing that professional workers must be made to return to cities. It is curious that these city-based businesses somehow consider themselves more worthy of saving from disruption than the blacksmith, corner shop, or indeed the video cassette rental store. Whether they can convince their ‘corporate friends’ to force workers to once again sacrifice family time and relationships in the name of creating a vibrant city centre for commercial activity will be interesting to observe over the next while.
Personally I find it a difficult argument to make, and I suspect that through these experiences many parents have realised the benefits to them and their children, and thus the family unit, of far more engagement in the raising of their children with less outsourcing to child-minders. In fact, many may have begun to realise what our family has learned through our experiences that there are very many underappreciated benefits to having one full-time parent in the family, and to sacrificing income from working more hours in paid employment to ‘invest in family’.
Increasingly psychologists are referring to the concept of ‘psychological bandwidth’ meaning the capacity of individuals to deal with complex and/or multiple issues. It has obvious application in workplaces in assessing individual performance, but the reality is that nobody can know exactly how much ‘data’ is being processed by any individual because nobody can ever fully understand all of the issues that individuals are confronting in their work and personal lives. There are many issues that even that person is unaware of that is consuming their ‘bandwidth’, especially if they are someone with low self-awareness or emotional intelligence, or when there are issues that are not widely acknowledged in the workplace (such as issues around prejudice and bias).
The concept also is embedded in the way Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger explain their business and investing success, recognisable to those who intuitively understand the concept, when they say that they have maintained very relaxed work habits throughout their careers with plenty of time for reading and contemplation. They often joke that most would be surprised by how they work and many might even consider them ‘lazy’. Obviously this is an acknowledgment that it is human to have a limited ‘psychological bandwidth’. Successful and effective people know it is critical to not overload their ‘bandwidth’, either consciously or unconsciously. This is essentially the truth* underlying my post “Workplace Flexibility Success” that the smart aspect is the most important of the hard and smart work ethos, and that managers that rely on ‘presenteeism’ (or ‘bums on seats’) to judge their workers are admitting that they are poor managers. As Buffett and Munger continually stress, surprisingly few excellent ideas are necessary to make significant impacts. However, most people lack the self-confidence that they will come up with quality ideas, and, I suspect, fear that managers will be unreceptive and unable to recognise their merit when they are presented with them, so the majority engage themselves in the game of ‘presenteeism’ and attempting to appear busy churning out lots of data rather than searching for those ‘golden ideas’.
To understand that this concept relates to all of us, even the rare geniuses amongst humanity, look no further than this brilliant piece to learn of the mundane issues which occupied Machiavelli and about the court case that so occupied Michelangelo that he never held a chisel for four years!
Understanding this concept early in my life has been one of my great advantages, through my scientific career and in the ways that I run our family household as I describe below.
The use of the concept that I identify most with is in discussions of inequality where analysts highlight that underprivileged people are consuming so much of their ‘bandwidth’ for day to day survival that it is extremely challenging to make logical decisions that have the potential to improve their circumstances over the medium to long term. These researchers point out that this often results in privileged people looking down upon under-privileged people for making poor choices, adding to the concepts around credentialism that Prof. Sandel discussed and which I dealt with above.
I identify with this concept of ‘psychological bandwidth’ because of my upbringing. Instead of referring to it as ‘bandwidth’, however, I have always referred to the concept as one of ’emotional energy’.
I discussed this even in the earliest pages published here at MacroEdgo including my discussion on my ‘Investment History‘ page when discussing the decision to delay buying a home, and under several themes on my ‘Investment Themes‘ page where I made mention of the challenges my family and I confronted in my childhood (which I have now expanded upon most completely in “How Farmers Lose Their Perspective“).
In my concept I see that we all have a ‘bank’ of emotional energy that we draw on to carry out our day to day lives and to respond to the issues that we confront. Obviously in modern parlance it is directly related to our resilience in that this ‘bank’ of energy is what we draw on to be resilient and recover from adversity. If we are unfortunate to face prolonged stress in our lives and/or extreme trauma or a series of traumatic events then our ‘bank’ of emotional energy becomes depleted and we struggle to recover. In my case I had a breakdown when my ‘bank’ had been totally depleted and when I became overwhelmed by anxiety.
Families with close connections obviously have a collective ‘bank’ of emotional energy from all of the individuals in their family – that is where we draw from to support each other when things become difficult for one, some, or all of those in the group – essentially the strength of our ‘support network’. I learned all of this when I was a teenager, when my family’s collective ‘bank’ of emotional energy had been depleted by our fight to keep the farm, and I knew that I could not dip into that as I struggled with normal teenager development. I had to suppress my emotions and I sort to generate some of my own emotional energy for the family by becoming especially close to my father working with him to help make his dream come true. It came at great cost to me, emotionally, and ultimately the family fractured primarily as a matter of individual survival as the pressure was very prolonged and traumatic events occurred.
This is the main reason why I understood the importance of families not living under acute or chronic stress, and that was my primary objective in my earlier blogging activities on the Australian housing bubble – getting Australian families to stop and think before committing to prolonged economic vulnerability to own a home through extreme debt loads just because others are doing it.
My wife and I always, from our earliest family planning, intended that one of us would allow our careers to take a backseat in order to devote most of our energy to our family. As circumstances turned out, the only logical choice was for that to be me, and nobody is more pleased with the situation than me. Psychologically I started out in a challenging position, seeing as I had first to recover from a breakdown from being burned out trying to continue my career as a research scientist, but through a long process of introspection and healing, with and without professionals, I was able to fully recover.
I now see my most important function within our family, in the primary caregiver role, to be the backup energy source for everybody, the big ‘bank’ of emotional energy that is not burdened with many day to day stresses (from work, or school, or social issues) that can be tapped into to provide the support to whoever is struggling at the time, or even the whole family if there is a major issue we must confront together. I do not say that I never get down myself, because I do sometimes – e.g. I have found it an isolating experience to be a male full-time parent – but those moments where my emotional energy is run-down are rare these days. Most of my emotional energy goes to supporting my children, and especially my wife over recent years with those issues that I mentioned above. In truth, the stress that she has had to endure in recent years has been so great that I have feared that I would not be able to provide enough support for her, and there were times when I really feared for the consequences to her and our family. When I think of that I am afraid to even consider what would have been the implications if I was not able to support her to the degree I have over that time, especially if I was still stressed trying to maintain my career.
Having a full-time parent nowadays is considered by some to be an unaffordable ‘luxury’ for a family, but in reality very many Australian families could make the same decision if they were prepared to sacrifice income, and more specifically, the things that their income is spent on buying (e.g. by delaying buying a home and living more modestly). I cannot help but think it is an enormous advantage to emotionally supporting and raising well-grounded children, and to providing a happy and healthy family home life.
Much is made of the contemporary opportunities for two-income families in comparison to 50 years ago, but I actually see the situation as the opposite. Management of family and home in our time is so much more complicated than it was back then, and I have no doubt that the stress from that combined with the stress from two careers in a family home are a large part of the growing levels of anxiety within society and in our children. As just one example, staying on top of all school communication – the many letters from schools and forms to be completed in this increasingly litigious society, emails from teachers, yearly introductions and parent-teacher meetings, involvement in other school activities including volunteering in numerous ways – surely consumes multiples of the time and energy that they did decades earlier. The same goes for sporting activities and the myriad other extra-curricular activities.
It goes much further, however, in a world where increasingly Governments have shifted important functions onto individuals and families. The amount of time and energy taken to sort out insurances for health, house and contents, cars, lives, incomes, against trauma or other mishaps, and to review them periodically to ensure that insurers are not taking advantage of apathy, are enormous nowadays.
Then there is the largest administrative task of all – money management so that the resources of the family can provide for the hopes and aspirations of all in the family, including for a comfortable and secure retirement. This has been the trend with the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement savings programs, and the consequent shifting of risk, thus responsibility, onto individual workers.
In addition to all of that for parents is the standard day to day roles of keeping everybody well fed with healthy food living in a healthy environment that is clean and stimulating. Here I must admit that my wife does need to do some housework as I am more interested in outdoor activities to maintain and improve the amenity of our home, but that is essentially the mirror opposite of the distribution of tasks in the ‘traditional’ nuclear family of the 1960s with the mum at home.
Unlike the 1960’s, however, there are probably around 500% more gadgets and devices around our (significantly larger) houses and (smaller) yards that must be maintained by someone.
The truth for most modern two-income families is that childcare is only the beginning of the outsourcing of vital tasks that many or even most families engage in. Increasingly in the Great Reset I believe that families will question whether they are actually better off for the two incomes and will better analyse the pros and cons of each outsourced task.
Families that are capable of making pragmatic decisions based on the broad range of relevant issues, not on outdated stereotypes of gender roles, are likely to reduce their combined hours worked in paid employment. I also believe that even primary or sole income earners will also decrease the amount of time spent in income producing work, if not necessarily by choice then by societal acceptance of reduced working hours with a UBI or other additional Government payments.
These changes will be enormously beneficial to creating healthy connections within families and throughout communities which will lead to more cohesive societies.
My wife and I will forever be proud that the decisions that we made allowed me to contribute to our community deeply. Through volunteering at our children’s primary school I can say in total honesty that I played a role in teaching every child in both of our sons’ year levels to read and to swim because nowadays no child is allowed in a school pool without adult volunteers, and those volunteers have been in increasingly short supply. Moreover I was able to help on excursions and in other fundraising activities.
Irrespective of whether a parent or not, all of these volunteering activities contribute to cohesive societies by creating deep connection and belonging.
^I also wish to be clear that this does not necessarily relate to every sector as redundancy or over-capacity is necessarily built into some critical services in society to handle surge demand, which when it comes to nurses were stretched beyond limits during the pandemic, and other sectors have a long history of under-employment and exploitation, for instance academic teaching, unrelated to ’empire-building’ by middle managers.
%Giving credit where it is due, however, her employer has been very conscious of employee welfare and preferences through the pandemic, and for my wife, this extended period of working from home has been especially welcome and timely given the underlying issues remain largely unaddressed.
*I realise that I may be criticised for under referencing in my essays, but they are meant to be just that – essays – and not research pieces. In my background as a research scientist I tended to be extremely thorough with sourcing, often overly so (admittedly I was a collector of resources and back in those days nothing was more thrilling than receiving in the post a big hoard of reprints), so this is a liberating benefit of no longer being a professional. I do try to limit my assumptive statements to those which are reasonably self evident, but I recognise that those who wish to disagree will always maintain their blinkered- (blindered-) view and find fault no matter how well sourced my writing. Pragmatically, though, everybody now knows that just about anybody can track down at least one source these days maintaining virtually any position, for instance as whacky as 5G networks spreading coronavirus. I have also noted that the sources in my essays – through hyperlinks – are only very rarely accessed. While I recognise that experts in the various fields that I cover would source their research pieces and articles more thoroughly, and should, I consider that the level of sourcing I carry out for my mostly big-picture essays is entirely acceptable.
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