• Work Life Journal

Shifting Economies and the Transformation of Work


Shifting economic climates have created unparalleled pressures in the way in which our society functions, and these pressures have inadvertently contributed towards the re-shaping of our workforce. Widespread transformations such as globalisation, outsourcing and market deregulations, have paved the way for a neoliberal agenda underlining economic environments and organisational pursuits - pushing for greater efficiencies and increases in productivity. Yet as a result, this appears to burden and disadvantage workers, who bear a myriad of detrimental consequences of these changes, such as work intensification, rationalisation of wages and job insecurity. While these conditions generate serious work/life tensions, an associated element which has been under-examined is the relationship between this conflict and a widening gap between household income and debt:

In a paper presented at the Workforce Conference in 2010, Adam Bandt claimed “… in 1983 household debt was around 35% of household income. By 2008, this had increased to around 150%. And at the same time, we have a year on year increase in the number of workers reporting that they find it hard to get by on their income. This is a picture of unsustainable tensions between work, life, income and debt. Something is likely to give”. This is in line with the steady decrease in single income families over the past twenty years, and the rise of dual-income earners, representing around 62% of couple families in Australia. This development represents an important driving force behind the take up of workplace flexibility.

Unexpected and profound economic shifts, such as the recent Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008/2009, spawned unprecedented changes in employment practices in Australia and around the world. Unlike the recessions of the 1980’s and 1990’s, where mass redundancies were seen as the solution to cost cutting and organisational survival, the GFC saw the increased use of flexible work practices as a form of management innovation to deal with the challenges of the downturn. Australian Bureau of Statistics’ employment data indicates a significant increase in part-time hours, a reduction in work hours, and an increase in leave-taking, which was pronounced for the period in which the GFC occurred – August 2008 to August 2009. Australia’s unemployment rate peaked at 5.8% in 2009 (compared to 10.3% in 1980’s and 10.7% in 1990’s).

Bourke and Russell (2011) suggest that Australia’s uptake of flexibility during and following the GFC was prompted by organisational trepidations of losing valuable talent and an antipathy to making full-time employees redundant – since prior to this economic shift, Australia grappled with a significant skills shortage. Moreover, greater awareness and familiarity with the concept of flexibility may have provided greater credence for organisational adoption. These shifts helped develop the normalisation of the concept of flexibility in Australia. In their research involving interviews with fifteen decision-makers in various industries, the authors found evidence of an increased focus on flexibility during the GFC: 60% of respondent organisations promoted taking leave (accrued / purchased / annualised reduced hours and leave without pay); 9% increased their flexible work options; 22% increased promotion of existing flexible work practices.

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