Wednesday, May 27, 2015

It's skilless men, not mothers, we should get into jobs

One of the main things I've concluded after years in this job is that, although the economic dimension of our lives – the earning and spending of income – is vitally important, it's far from being the only important aspect. And we disregard those other dimensions – the relational, the social, the cultural and the spiritual – at our peril.

In this age of hyper-materialism, we're in constant danger of forgetting that. It's true of both sides of politics, but was well illustrated by Tony Abbott's changes to paid parental leave and childcare in the budget.

The nation's economists are worried that, between the ageing of the population and the end of the resources boom, we face much slower growth in our material standard of living than we've become used to.

Their solution – as advocated in the government's recent intergenerational report – is to get more of us participating in the paid workforce and to raise the average worker's productiveness (by working smarter, not harder).

During the years Abbott was pushing his far more generous paid parental leave, one of his key arguments was that it would increase young mothers' participation in the workforce.

But a report by the Productivity Commission seems finally to have convinced the government that if increasing women's participation was its main objective, raising the subsidy to childcare would do more than more generous parental leave would (though it wouldn't all that much).

Thus was the announcement of yet another broken election promise hidden behind the announcement of more generous childcare subsidies. Predictably, the media missed the sleight of hand.

But having lost its enthusiasm for paid leave, the government took its Labor predecessors' scheme – whose parsimony it had repeatedly criticised – and made it more inadequate by removing the ability of some mothers to supplement the government's 18 weeks of paid leave with further weeks paid for by their employer.

This saved the taxpayer about $1 billion, as well as having the presumably intended effect of encouraging the mothers of babies to get back to work earlier.

Oh yes, cried the feminists, what about the rights of the child? What about the official recommendation that new mothers not return to work for at least six months, something Abbott had previously harped on when criticising Labor's mean scheme?

Whoops. A classic case of (male) politicians putting "the economy" – actually, our material prosperity – ahead of such lesser matters as a mother's bonding with her child and the crucial early mental development of the next generation.

Let's hope the newly more reasonable Abbott will correct this simple misstep. But let's also consider the views of Dr Mike Keating, a retired super-senior econocrat, whose contributions to the public debate are often greatly enlightening, especially relative to the official obfuscation.

The Other Keating makes two important points. His first is that there's a lot more to be gained from paid employment than just money. "Being employed creates many of the social contacts and sense of self-esteem that are vital to our individual wellbeing," he says.

"Increasing employment participation is most important if governments want to improve living standards, individual wellbeing and equality."

His second point is that, contrary to what some argue, the weak point in our participation isn't married women. Our overall rate of "employment participation" as he calls it – the proportion of the working-age population with a paid job – is just under 61 per cent, which breaks down into averages of 67 per cent for men and 55 per cent for women.

Surprisingly, this overall 61 per cent is the same as it was 50 years ago. But its composition has changed markedly. Male employment participation is as much as 18 percentage points lower than it was in 1966, whereas the female rate is 15 percentage points higher.

The decline for men is explained mainly by the decline in blue-collar jobs, as computerisation has eliminated many unskilled jobs. The rise for women reflects changing social attitudes and women's greater suitability for filling jobs in the ever-growing services sector.

Here's the point. Almost all the long-term decline in employment participation by men aged 25 to 55 was accounted for by those who didn't complete secondary school and have no further qualifications.

What's more, in that age range, employment participation is much lower for those who didn't complete year 12 and have no further qualifications – 71 per cent for men and 60 per cent for women – than it is for those who did complete schooling and may have further qualifications: almost 18 percentage points higher for men and 22 points for women.

Keating notes that the overall rate of employment participation for Australian women is only a little lower than for women in comparable countries, and for women with tertiary qualifications there's virtually no difference.

Get it? It's not women who are causing our employment participation to be lower than we'd like, it's the less skilled.

"It is people whose educational qualifications are poor and who lack skills who have most scope to increase their employment participation." So "the focus should be on policies to improve the job prospects of low-skilled and disadvantaged people".

For Keating's more specific proposals, you'll have to see my little video on the website.