Every now and then, talk fires up about tweaking family tax benefits and incentivising women to return to work through childcare benefits. And every now and then, murmuring inevitably crops up about subsidising what some deem to be “a mere lifestyle choice”.

Specifically,

  • Why do I, as a taxpayer who doesn’t have, or has chosen not to have, children be penalised by having to shoulder the burden of others out there who have children but can’t seem to afford it?
  • Those who have opted to have children should bear their own burdens, and not ask for a handout. My wife/mother/grandmother’s generation did it tough and never expected a handout. This is an age of entitlement.
  • If this generation spent less on their plasma screens and big houses, they would be able to afford to live within their means and not expect the government to use taxpayers’ money to supplement their family budget.
  • Ever heard of family planning? If you literally can’t afford the natural consequence of sex, for all of our sakes, use a condom.

A very close cousin to such resentment involves the workplace and includes the seeming expectation that parents are exempt from putting in long hours because of school pick-ups, and those who are single and/or childless are left behind to pick up the slack.

All this boils down to the sullen assumption that families are getting a free ride – they are getting their cake and eating it. These parents have chosen to pursue a particular type of lifestyle and the rest of society is paying for their choices.

Such assumptions go in some way to explain the rise of the likes of Senator David Leyonhjelm, who referred to the latest generation of Australians (read: babies) as “little blighters” and “bundles of dribble and sputum”, and then congratulated the childless for “being more productive” than the rest of parenting Australia. True story.


I first stumbled across such a point of view at work, when a colleague of mine was lamenting his high taxes, and then suddenly unleashed a small diatribe on parents in general and how he, a single healthy white male, has ended up paying for everyone else. The way he saw it, he was part of the least privileged class in a country with a social welfare system. And I, newly pregnant at the time, stupidly felt apologetic for being on the precipice of burdening society with my choice to indulge in something so frivolous and optional as childraising.

How did good become bad? How did parenting – which many deem to be the most noble of professions – suddenly get such a bad rep? How did the selflessness of pouring one’s life out for another suddenly come to be regarded as a selfish act?

Let’s unpack this.

The one about working fewer hours

I came across this comment from an article a few months ago, and haven’t been able to find it since to give credit where it’s due:

@Miau @nyreader18 For some (not all), parenthood is a choice. And you’re right, it’s never fair when you have to pick up someone else’s slack. But I don’t know that all parents who leave on time to attend to home duties necessarily leave their work for others to cover. I know many, many parents who are back online catching up at home long after the kids are in bed. They do their 10 hours outside of home duties, just not all at once. We can’t paint everyone with the same brush, and we can’t see what happens behind closed doors.

For all the talk about equality of the sexes, the workforce has still some ways to go in catching up with its ideas on labour and productivity. They’ve liberated the women and we can all go to work now, except they went and placed another set of strictures around our time. It’s the 21st century, but I’m still coming across butts-on-seats as the underlying definition of true service to CEO and company, and the 8-to-5 model tends to disadvantage caregivers – whether they’re parents or not.

As for companies that do give flexibility – hotdesking, working from home, company-sponsored gadgets etc – the other extreme starts to creep in: the line between corporate and personal life blurs, and suddenly work owns all of your life. The expectation to be on top of every email, to give a kneejerk response within the hour, to prioritise everything as Important and Urgent… The inference is, “I gave you a mobile and so you can’t turn it off.”

The real issue isn’t parents vs the childless, but resource management. If you’re required to work 10 hours to fit the project within 7.5 manhours, that’s a resources issue – labour has been underestimated. And you and I know that work never really ends. Just when you think you’ve conquered a big one, there’s always another underneath waiting for action.

Poor Meghann Foye thought aloud in April this year about how wonderful it would be to go off on a “Meternity” leave for some personal regrouping and kumbaya, and got duly ridiculed and despised by mothers everywhere who saw her article as trivialising arguably the steepest learning curve and rudest shock women everywhere encounter when they give birth to their bundles of sputum. (See what I did there, Dave?)

I actually think she got hard done by, because embedded in her (adorably rose-tinted) article about how wonderful cruisey a maternity “break” is, is this gem worth repeating.

“Ultimately, what I learned from my own “meternity” leave is that any pressure I felt to stay late at the office wasn’t coming from the parents on staff. It was coming from myself. Coming back to a new position, I realized I didn’t need an “excuse” to leave on time. And that’s what I would love the take-away for my book to be: Work-life balance is tough for everyone, and it happens most when parents and nonparents support and don’t judge each other.”

The one about This Age of Entitlement

Ah, the age of entitlement argument. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a younger generation in possession of inherited debt and crippling taxes must be in want of character.

Generations have been rubbishing the generations after them since the dawn of time, by the way.

Consider the whole Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, from which we get the eponym “jeremaid”.

“A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in verse, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” — Wikipedia

Also,

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise (read: disrespectful) and impatient of restraint.” — Hesiod, 8th century BC

 

And for a bit of irony, the Silent Generation, acknowledging how shocked they can be by their children’s antics.

Young people nows-a-day.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why older generations are constantly wondering about the narcissism and recklessness of the younger, this article is illuminating.

Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences. Further, they write:

In turn, when older people are told that younger people are getting increasingly narcissistic, they may be prone to agree because they confuse the claim for generational change with the fact that younger people are simply more narcissistic than they are. The confusion leads to an increased likelihood that older individuals will agree with the Generation Me argument despite its lack of empirical support.

On a more sobering note, there is a growing body of analysis that have done the sums and come to the embarrassing conclusion that the Entitled Generation isn’t the Millennials but the Baby Boomers. The indictments are scathing, but the general gist is that the generation retiring has left behind an economic legacy that is rougher and tougher for future generations to tread water in.

I’m not saying that the Baby Boomers are a lazy generation – they worked hard. They have contributed immensely. But they were also the lucky generation – a huge mining boom, no world wars, fairly unscathed by the Asian Financial Crises and, in the words of McCrindle,

a 27 year period of uninterrupted economic boom (from the recession in the early 1990s to 2008) which is likely to be unprecedented and never again seen among Australians of any generation.

And yet,

Rather than a rising tide lifting all boats, the baby boomer generation massively improved its own wealth position while the younger generation have found themselves less wealthy than were their forebears, both in the share of the wealth pie, and in real dollar terms.

Little wonder that they get a bit tetchy when they’re told their generation is too lazy and just needs to save up and work hard like their parents did.

 

The One about Contributing to Society

 

Let’s go back to Dave.

“To the childless people of Australia, I want to say, on behalf of this Parliament, thank you for being childless.

“You work for more years and become more productive than the rest of Australia. You pay thousands and thousands of dollars more tax than other Australians. You get next to no welfare …

“But you pay when other people get pregnant, you pay when they give birth, you pay when they stay at home to look after their offspring …”

I realise this is old news, but his ilk are still running around grumbling about welfare suckers like young families, and then NSW responded by re-electing him last month. I mean, seriously…

Before I continue, I want to make myself perfectly clear – he’s right about (some of) the childless. They don’t get family tax breaks for being singles sans children or DINKs – They do stay longer in the workforce than mothers, who dive in and out especially in the early years of their children’s lives. I have nothing against the childless. We were childless for 7 years. There was one dinner party Tony and I went to Before Children, where we found ourselves surrounded by 3 other couples (no children) who all admitted to receiving welfare in some form or another, and Tony and I surmised that our tax dollars were probably helping all of them. We get it. 

And yes, not everyone plans to be childless, and not everyone plans to be parents. We all have our stories.

But I am addressing the assumption in parts of society that parents get special treatment through maternity and childcare schemes, and that such schemes are unfair because they “tax” the childless.

Because I would argue that childraising contributes heaps to society over the long term. A working parent, especially, still pays taxes but also produces the next generation of taxpayers. In short, ALL of us benefit from supporting parenthood, particularly when whole nations are ticking economic time bombs because of graying populations. (*Cough* Japan *Cough*).

We are also at the cusp of a historical first. In just shy of 4 years, the elderly will outnumber the young — for the first time in human history.

And these two age groups will continue to grow in opposite directions: The proportion of the population aged 65 and up will continue increasing, while the proportion of the population aged 5 and under will continue decreasing.

This also means that the ratio of workers to retirees will also halve in my lifetime. What was already a miserable ratio (4:1) is now looking to be a mere 2:1 by 2056.

In short, maternity schemes, workplace support, and other such pillars are forms of social investment. It’s putting money into human capital. My bundles of dribble and sputum will eventually be funding someone’s retirement. Maybe yours.

Deciding to be childless isn’t always a choice, as we’ve covered before. But when it is, it can be argued that you also receive “special treatment” when you choose not to pay it forward. Name-calling is never fair, so let’s not start.

 

The One about Procreation as a Choice

Know what else your taxpayer’s dollars pay for?

Roads you may never drive on
Hospitals you may never use
Schools you didn’t learn in
Government housing you didn’t need

We don’t begrudge a cancer patient his free healthcare when his condition was induced by smoking. I would argue that his smoking was a lifestyle choice.

I find it completely baffling that something as fundamental as the continuation of the human race should be whittled down to a privilege that only the middle-incomers can afford. Or worse.

Having children is now often framed as a frivolous lifestyle choice, as if it’s a decision that’s no different from moving to San Francisco or buying a motorcycle. If you choose to buy that Harley or have that baby, it’s on you, lady.

Whether you believe we are essentially animals or souls encased in flesh, we are living and human. Living things want to procreate and need to procreate. It’s a fundamental right and expectation, individual freedoms and choices not withstanding. We agitate for freedoms of speech, for equality of age and gender and orientation, for religion. Freedom from torture and forced labour and yes, the right to essential services, and yes – the right to marry and found a family.

So why is it that we look at couples who want to start a family and think they’re being unreasonably selfish?

 

It is a choice, and a grand one, and a tough one, and a noble one. It is not ever merely a choice. It is a basic human need and if we are struggling to understand and protect and support that, then no wonder humankind is slowly dying out.

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