In the mythology of the global village, Australia is the land of the laid-back lifestyle where you can have your barbecued prawns (shrimp, to North American readers) and eat them too. But some time during the past two decades, while Aussies had their noses to the economic grindstone, the easy lifestyle slipped away and family relationships began to suffer.

So when Relationships Forum Australia earlier this year published a report entitled, An Unexpected Tragedy: Evidence for the connection between working patterns and family breakdown in Australia, it struck a major chord with the media and in the ranks of all those over-worked, time-poor, heavily mortgaged citizens who are wondering what all the work is really for. In this interview with MercatorNet, co-author of the report, Paul Shepanski, talks about how Australians are waking up again to the importance of family and relationships.

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MercatorNet:Australia has always been the lucky country and today the economy is booming. It is true the drought hasn't broken, but according to Prime Minister John Howard, "You've never had it so good." Immigrants still flock here — more than 20,000 Britons settled in Australia last year. And yet we hear that Australians are not completely happy. Why?

Paul Shepanski: When there's a long period of good times, as there has been over the last decade or more here, people get to raise their sights to a different level. Rather than just looking at their personal financial situation they begin to see that other things are not all that they should be. Work intensity is at an all-time high, time together as a family is the exception rather than the norm, and relationships are suffering. Rates of divorce and separation keep increasing, there are high levels of violence against women and increasing racial tensions.

For a group of Australians who are pretty well-to-do, and that's a lot of us, the question arises, why are we so busy? Why have we not got time for our friends and our family? And, although we have all these material things are we really getting everything there is to get out of life?

At the same time there are a lot of people who are financially hard-pressed. They are really suffering from things like the high cost of housing, extremely high levels of household debt, and feel they are not really sharing in the good times because, in the case of couples for example, both have to go to work just to get a little share of what is going on around them.

MercatorNet: Is it true that Aussies are working longer hours than anyone else in the rich world?

Shepanski: We are certainly at the top end in terms of average working hours and, what makes it worse, we also have a strong tendency to work on weekends, and a relatively large proportion of the working population are employed on a casual basis, and all this adds up to a lot of people working unsocial hours. In a population of 20.4 million, 3 million of us work on weekends and 2 million work on Sundays.

Australia has traditionally been the land of the long weekend, where families can get out, go to sport, have their friends around for a barbecue. We have regarded ourselves as pretty relaxed. So it has been quite a shock for people to discover that it is not just them working much longer and harder but that it is happening to the country as a whole. That realisation has now seeped into the Australian psyche, that we are not really a laissez-faire, easy-come, easy-go bunch of people any more.

The other shock was to realise what an impact the long working hours are having on family life. If there is one value that goes to the core with Australians it's the family. No government here would ever risk being seen as anti-family. It is just impossible here. But the reality is that most of us don't have the time we want for our families.

MercatorNet: Is it the government's fault? Economic reforms? The winding back of the welfare state?

Shepanski: One of the reasons people have been shocked at these changes is that they have been happening gradually over a long time, at least since the early 1980s, so you can't blame any one government. In any case the situation is also the result of individual choices, so rather than thinking about who is to blame we need to focus on that fact that we have reached a stage in our post-industrial society where it's possible to have our cake and eat it too.

MercatorNet: Are we looking here at a crisis of consumerism and the materialistic approach to life?

Shepanski: I certainly wouldn't discount that. We've had an extraordinarily high level of people down-shifting in this country over the last 15 to 20 years — changing careers, moving to lower-cost housing locations and all that sort of thing. Sure, there's still a lot of striving for the flat-screen TV, the weekends at holiday resorts and so on, so we can't discount that factor in the current patterns. At the same time governments and businesses can do more to encourage and support people to have time together with families and friends and be involved in their local communities.

MercatorNet: Can a government actually deliver happiness or wellbeing to people?

Shepanski: This is a question fraught with difficulties, but surveys here have shown that three-quarters of Australians consider the government should look more to the welfare of people rather than just wealth. It's not as though the economy is separate from the question of happiness — keeping people employed and higher income levels is very supportive of people's happiness. But these things get more than their share of attention because they are easier to measure. If the inflation rate goes up by a quarter of a per cent the government knows exactly what the impact is, they also have a toolbox of policies to apply, and they know beforehand exactly how they are going to react.

When it comes to relationships they haven't got a good set of performance indicators in order to measure the inputs and outcomes in a timely way. Nor have they got an integrated set of tools to be able to respond. So the issues to do with relationships in the family and community start a long way behind economic issues.

MercatorNet: But if everyone is convinced of the importance of addressing the relationships question there are things that can be done through public policy?

Shepanski: In our report we made some broad suggestions of the types of policies that need to be given consideration. Some of these, such as special work provisions for parents with school-aged children, are already working in other countries. But we stopped short of recommending any particular policies because no one has done the work yet to assess what the impact of the various options would be — on the economy and the environment as well as on relationships.

Having said that, there is one concrete move we think could be made, and that is having a shared day off at least once a month, allowing, of course, for essential services to keep running. We suggest the first Sunday of each month.

MercatorNet: Your research shows that Australians are ready to move on this issue?

Shepanski: We think that Australians recognise the need for something beyond the economic. However, we are not sure to what extent they have an appetite for change in our public policy, which is another reason why we have not recommended specific policies. We believe they need to be the subject of a significant public debate here.

And there is the question of "multiple identity disorder" — meaning that we are the same people who want two different things. We are the people who don't want to have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, and regret that it is so hard to get family and friends around for a barbecue — but we are also the people who want to be able to go to the shops on a Sunday afternoon to buy school shoes for our children, or to have a coffee at the shopping mall. The two things don't work together when you are trying to achieve a corporate change across the whole society.

Paul Shepanski is the co-author, with Michael Diamond, of An Unexpected Tragedy: Evidence for the connection between working patterns and family breakdown in Australia. The report was commissioned by the Relationships Forum Australia Paul has a background in international business consultancy and now divides his work time between running his own internet-based travel agency and working in his local community. He is married with two children and lives in Sydney.