Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Economic Freedoms

Of late, there have been a number of discussions happening around me concerning economics, freedoms, employment, and social attitudes toward all of the above. Those don't really touch on any of my current research topics, but I want to talk about them a bit anyway.

A major topic of conversation in Ireland these days is the price of housing. Housing is ludicrously expensive, right across the country. Further items that are expensive are energy - both fuel for cars, and household forms, with prices reupted to be set to rise this winter again - food, and childcare. In essence, the cost of living has increased to an unreasonable degree over the last ten years.

There's a feedback mechanism at work here, centered around an expectation that all adults in any given household will be employed outside the home. The more that this expectation becomes normal, the more pressure there is - both economic and social - to conform to this norm. If everyone else who wishes to buy a house has a double income, then you need a double income, or a very large single income, to have a chance of buying.

However, I'm not convinced that this is healthy, from two separate points of view. Firstly, a great deal of Irish - and indeed worldwide - day to day processes assume that there is someone at home during the day. Postal deliveries, meter readings, grocery and household shopping all work on this principle, even though it's no longer true in the majority of cases. The rise of late-opening shops and supermarkets, online and phone meter readings all show an adjustment to this, but require even more money and, more importantly, time. The result of this is that after the 40+ hours a week that work takes, everyone must now turn around and take care of household processes. The cumulative stress from this, across the entire population, must be huge.

Second, there's childcare. I don't have kids, and have no intention of having any, but people around me are starting to, and the stories I hear about the cost of childcare are terrifying. In essence, one-third to a half of the disposable income of one parent must go, each month, on creche and after-school care bills, per child. Obviously, there comes a point when one parent is working fulltime so that the children can be taken care of full-time.

And yet, let someone stay home to take care of the household and/or kids, and they're in economic and social trouble straight away. Society no longer sees value in these tasks, and resents the "leisure" of those who take them on. This is particularly applied to women who stay in the home, and a great deal of this social pressure comes from other women. Men who do so are still unusual enough that people often move to the assumption that there must be good reason - an odd piece of social "thinking", but one that's prevalent. If not, the unfortunate bloke comes in for even more pressure, as people wonder aloud when he's going to get a job, and stop living off his partner.

To my mind, neither of these situations make sense; in chasing after more and more money, whose purpose is to make our lives and those of our families easier, we end up making them more diffiicult. There's an apocryphal story about an Amazonian tribe, who, having tried the comforts and benefits of modern life for a few decades, vanished back into the rainforest to get away from the hassle - I sympathise. Solutions to these problems are hard to see, but I'm starting to wonder if there isn't a tipping point ahead, if the double income of the last generation isn't an anomaly in the longer-term economic trends.


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