Carers of Australia unite!

Barbara Pocock

Many Australians are living and working, at present, in an uncomfortable moment. It is a moment of dissonance, when our behaviour has moved way ahead of our institutions and cultures. Our discomfort lies in the private adaptions we make - and are forced to make - around institutions and cultures that no longer fit how we like to, or can easily, live. It also lies in the gap that we cannot privately plug between the circumstances of work, and the circumstances of our lives.

These historical moments - when behaviours run ahead of institutions and cultures that are slow to catch up with new realities, like working mothers - are not unusual. In the Scandinavian case, for example, women's participation in paid work preceded a regime of support for them: childcare, paid and unpaid parental leave, part-time work. Public policy responded to a significant social change. It did not leave it - for long - up to private adaption, to diminished quality of life for those who depend on those who now worked, or to the imposition of a double day on working/carers, reinforcing gender inequality and undermining quality of life perhaps for children in particular.

But this Scandinavian lag, then catch up, occurred at a time when the public sector budget environment was positive, a tight labour market screamed for women's contribution, and a social democratic political force, reinforced by a strong equality and rights perspective, prevailed. All in an economy that was relatively protected from the kind of chill winds and downdrafts of international competition that now drive labour standards down rather than up.

The gap between how we live and work, and how we might want to, is not the same for all. It is different for men and women, for rich and poor, for those in cities and those in country towns, for those who have dependents and those who do not, for sole parents and couples, for Indigenous Australians and immigrants and those who are not.

But - amidst all this diversity - there are some overwhelming commonalities. More and more of us live and work with twin responsibilities of work and care and these twins are not, at present, easy bedfellows.

The prime minister and his advisors like to suggest that another over-riding divide differentiates experience: between those in single earner, and dual earners; between the way Janette did it, and Melanie might. Of all the sources of difference I think this is the least real: today's single earner households with women at home and men in jobs, are tomorrow's dual earner households, and vice versa. The better way to view this difference is as one that occurs over the life course - for many households - rather than as one of 'types' frozen in aspic, one choosing to live behind an unassailable picket fence, and one not.

My recent experience of writing this book about the work/life collision was convulsive: a bit like vomiting or childbirth. The book was born with a powerful momentum propelled by people's experience. I won't say it wrote itself, but it did feel like riding a horse that had a mind of its own. And its direction was not always in my control.

The book has found some unexpected supporters: Jeremy Cordeau - Adelaide's answer to Sydney's shock joc