Workshop:   20 – 21 October 2011

Family, work and wellbeing over the life course

University of Queensland , Brisbane

Convenors: Dr Belinda Hewitt (Queensland), Associate Professor Lyn Craig (UNSW), Professor Janeen Baxter (Fellow of ASSA) (Queensland)

This workshop will bring together Australian researchers who adopt a longitudinal and life course approach to examining work, family and well being. It will be organized around 3 stages of the life course: the transition to adulthood (18 - 30); mid-life (30 - 50); and older Australians (50+).

Download workshop report   [PDF 2.22 MB]

Workshop summary

In the last few decades of the 20th century major changes occurred in work and family life in Australia. Women entered the work force at unprecedented rates. This change was particularly marked for wives and mothers, who increasingly added paid work to their family responsibilities. Men's average employment hours and real wages declined. Households came to depend on women's earnings as well as on men's, and the dual earner household became a normative family form. Concurrently, social attitudes became more liberal; rates of marriage declined; the number of couples divorcing increased; the number of couples living together before, or instead of, marriage rose dramatically; young women's educational attainment outstripped young men's; women delayed child bearing and couples had smaller families. These changes meant greater personal freedom and more financial independence for women. Concomitantly, however, there was concern that the family as an institution was being undermined. A popular discourse emerged about the loss of traditional values and the breakdown of family life. There was a renewed focus on the ideals of motherhood. According to these protagonists, family relationships had become transitory, contingent and unreliable, and the social fabric less stable as a result.

Since the early 21st century, however, there has been a surprising reversal of some of these trends in Australia. In 2008 divorce rates were at their lowest in 20 years. Fertility rates were at their highest in 30 years. Marriage rates are no longer in decline. There has been a shift in some social attitudes. Values and beliefs about work, family and gender roles are now more conservative than they were 30 to 40 years ago. Parental time with children, rather than diminishing as widely feared, has risen. Women's workforce participation has held steady, rather than continuing to increase. Men's average work hours have continued to decline, but a higher proportion of full time employees are working very long hours than in times past. The gender division of labour in households with young children has become more pronounced.

While these recent trends may indicate a resurgence of traditional family values, other trends suggest that this not necessarily the case. For instance, the increase in fertility is highest amongst women aged 30 - 39 and de facto couples. Most marriages now follow a period of cohabitation. More same-sex couples are rearing children. Households continue to depend on the economic contributions of women for financial stability. Young people leave home and form independent households later than earlier cohorts, while at the other end of the age spectrum people are living longer. These latter trends have potential flow-on effects to other members of the family, who may be called upon to provide new levels of financial support, accommodation or unpaid care.

While the stability of recent trends is uncertain, one thing is clear - pathways through the life course now look very different than a generation ago. In this workshop we plan to debate and consider these emergent patterns of work and family life and their implications for gender equity and wellbeing. Are the recent changes enduring or temporary? What is driving them? Do they reflect a re-evaluation and re-prioritizing of family life or a generational change in the life course timing of events? What are the implications for gender equality and the well being of the young and the old? These issues will be investigated using a longitudinal and life course perspective, which emphasizes the importance of time, context, process and meaning in an individual's family and work life.

This workshop will bring together Australian researchers who adopt a longitudinal and life course approach to examining work, family and well being. It will be organized around 3 stages of the life course: the transition to adulthood (18 - 30); mid-life (30 - 50); and older Australians (50+). The aims are to:

  1. Identify current trends in work, family and well being over the life course
  2. Better understand the mechanisms underpinning these trends
  3. Debate whether recent trends are likely to be enduring or temporary
  4. Consider the implications for well being and gender equity
  5. Consider the implications for work and family policy

For more information, please contact:
Mr Andrew Swanson
Manager, Policy and Advocacy and International
andrew.swanson [at] assa.edu.au
+61 .2 62491788