I am probably setting myself up for some criticism with this week’s blog, but it is a reaction to some media responses I have been reading to the Productivity Commission’s recent working paper titled Labour Force Participation of Mature Age Women (available on their website) which analyses the participation rate of women aged 45 – 64 in the paid workforce. In recent decades the participation of women in the workforce has been increasing and this cohort is no different and now accounts for15% of total working hours compared with just 6% thirty years ago. However in this respect Australia lags behind many OECD countries in the contribution to the paid workforce made by this group. Consequently some of the media commentators on the report point out there is further growth potential in the contribution from such women in the future, estimating perhaps another 200,000 such employees could be encouraged to enter the workforce thus increasing our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Now I am all in favour of productivity improvements in fact I would say I devoted a significant part of my career in promoting productivity improvement. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been substantial gains in our standard of living in the last thirty years because of the micro-economic reform agenda and the deregulation of the Australian economy. But hounding more mature aged women into paid employment to make some illusory gains to GDP will make little or no improvement to our quality of life.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we undervalue the work of such women. Because it’s not paid it doesn’t get included in the accounts. If a woman makes a bed or cleans the room in a hotel and gets paid for it, that gets added to the production figures. If she works in a kindergarten minding other people’s children the economy values her output. If she works in aged care attending someone else’s aged parents then she is seen to make a contribution. But if she does these things for her own family and maintaining her own household they are seen as having no economic value.
Then you have the impact of grandmothers, many of who would be in this so-called underemployed category. It often falls to the lot of these women to care for their grandchildren to enable their own daughters to work, free of concerns about childcare. As a result many younger women have their careers facilitated by this assistance.
I feel it is the essence of a democratic society to provide options and choices. Certainly if women want to work in the paid workforce we should do all we reasonably can to remove impediments. It is instructive however that the report found that many of this mature age group of women (about 50%) would prefer to work (ie in the paid workforce) less and not more. The study found that if they were able to work the hours they preferred there would be a reduction in total hours worked of almost 11%.
It is inevitable in the coming years that the participation rate of this group will increase as today’s better educated women rise through the workforce and have longer careers in paid employment. And if that is the choice of these women let us support them as best we can. But don’t let us denigrate those older women who despite the valuable unpaid work they do, choose not to be part of the conventional mainstream economy. They are providing the nation with a hugely beneficial service even if it is not recognised as such by economists fixated on the size and growth of our GDP.
I am sure if we could quantify the benefits of these women as child-carers, supporters of the elderly, and nurturers of families and communities we wouldn’t feel so compelled to decry their non-participation in the paid workforce.
If women want to be high court judges fighter pilots, mining engineers, orthopaedic surgeons or members of the SAS I would say, “Good on them!” But if they choose to indulge their natural talents as nurturers and caregivers our society will be poorer from discouraging them. And it is equally unfair that we make them feel guilty and try to push them into paid employment. Let us assure them that we value their contribution to the quality of life of our communities.