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Mark Richardson says being a parent is ‘not a job’. But why not?

The AM Show host claimed this week that while it is ‘hard work’ being a mum, ‘you can’t call it a job’. But should payment be the yardstick by which we measure work? Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw thinks not.

Parenthood is no walk in the cricket oval. There are many parents who would agree that it is “the hardest job they have ever done”, but is it really a job? I mean playing professional cricket, now that is a job, but is parenting? You get paid for professional cricket after all, but you don’t get paid for parenting, so it doesn’t really count as work surely?

But if we paid for parenting would we then count it as a “work”?

Last week I had a conversation with my 8-year-old daughter about rugby. She was somewhat incensed to discover that not only are there excellent women rugby players in New Zealand who get nary a mention on the back of a Weetbix packet, but also that despite winning the World Cup five times, they had up until this year not been paid to play (and now only a small salary). Meanwhile the men, who had won their World Cup only three times, were paid, ahem, quite a lot. I believe her exact words were “so the women have to work another job as well as do the job of rugby, even though they are better?”

I don’t wish to start a riot about the relative quality of women and men’s sports. I do want to discuss why what counts as “work” is influenced by whether it is paid. And that whether work is paid or not depends very much on social and cultural norms, not on the actual contribution of it to the functioning of society.

We don’t pay for parenting (or do we?)

We don’t pay people to expend all their time, money, energy, youth and good hair to raise a new generation to contribute to society (ie. play cricket and have opinions on the telly). Perhaps it is this lack of pay that causes some to see parenting as “not a real job”. Yet we do in a way pay for parenting. We pay paid parental leave, which when it was introduced as policy in 2001 was specifically intended to “cover the opportunity costs of parenting”. In other words, paid parental leave was designed to recognise that people who had just had babies were temporarily leaving a paid job to do another job for which they were not being paid. So we do sort of pay a salary; not much though, so perhaps people believe it lacks “real value” – i.e. monetary value

There is economic value to parenting, we just choose not to count it

Parenting is a hard, demanding and important job, but there is no (or very little) money changing hands over it, so it is not contributing to the economy as measured by GDP. But we have established there is some money changing hands, so that is a small fly in the ointment.

Another small fly in the “there is no real economic value” argument is that when, someone (i.e. not a parent) is paid to look after a child this does count towards GDP. The exact same work, just carried out by different people, is counted differently in our measure of economic activity. That is kind of inconsistent.

It is not that some people in government don’t get the issue either. Statistics New Zealand undertakes formal measurement of the value of parenting, and all unpaid work.

In 2009, Stats NZ carried out the Time Use survey. It reported that unpaid work contributed at least $40 billion a year to the economy. Women do most of the unpaid work and do it during their working years. Men still do unpaid work, but they do less of it and usually after they have retired. Most of the unpaid work women are doing is caring for other people.

Source: Statistics New Zealand

A report by PwC in Australia last year looked at the monetary value of all that country’s unpaid childcare and put it at $345 billion a year. As the authors ask, Why is it that a mother caring for her children produces no measured economic value, but the same mother hiring others to look after her children does?”.

It is not just mothers we are talking about here; it is people of all genders whose caring work isn’t formally recognised in economic activity.

So why don’t we count parenting?

Economists have been pointing out the glaring unbalance for some time. Prue Hyman, who has been writing on this subject for over 25 years, told Stuff earlier this month that “[unpaid work] contributes to the upbringing and wellbeing of the next generation of economically active people and it provides services, care and support for those who would otherwise be more dependent on public resources for their welfare.” And Professor Marilyn Waring, author of the book If Women Counted, was recently interviewed on Q&A where she told Corin Dann that “we have to realise [unpaid work] is the single largest sector in any nation’s economy. And the whole of the market economy only is able to function on top of that.”

It is not just the women raising the issue. Economist Richard Dennis has long argued that the unbalance in the economy created by ignoring the work of women is unjust and unacceptable. Dennis argues, in this great talk, that women are being sold a lie about what is holding them back financially: it has nothing to do with their choices and everything to do with what we choose to value in society.

At the risk of starting a second riot, parenting is not valued because we don’t value work traditionally done by women in the same way we value that traditionally done by men – even when women produce the exact same value. Take recent research by Dr Isabelle Sin, who found women in New Zealand producing the same value for a company were still paid 16% less than men. Nice.

Count it as an economic activity to ensure we focus on its importance

Caring for people is vital work; without it society would not function, literally. Think of all the people you work with – carrying out important, interesting work – who rely on caring work to do their job. All of us need caring for at some point in our lives, and many of us will do that caring.

As a society that values taking care of people, we need caring work to be not just done, but done well. One way of helping this happen is to count it economically. Counting the economic value of an activity opens it up to political attention, to policy and investment decisions. It makes people in power consider how to improve it.

The trick of course is how to get it counted. GDP is a pretty poor measure of what has real value in society because – just putting this out there – maybe money is not actually a good measure of the things that matter most. So right now Treasury is looking at new ways of measuring economic activity. That’s good news, but we should be alert to the risk that caring work will get left out of that framework if it is not seen as worthwhile by those developing it. Perhaps the real issue is who gets to say what matters in our society. Hopefully the people at Treasury are not former cricketers.


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