The me generation in charge of the who generation?
Generation X (broadly defined as those born 1961-1981) was labelled the “me” generation by their earnest baby boomer parents – they were regarded as self-absorbed and too selfish to commit to marriage and parenting.
So what happens when the “me” generation is in charge of the next generation?
The fact is that the vast majority of today’s parents with children aged 0-12 years are Gen Xers – myself included. The popular perception is that the Gen Xers who grew up in the era of “outsourcing” have taken it literally and are now outsourcing all aspects of family life – most especially childcare.
The clear message is that long day care is the preferred option and that today’s tots are all being bundled off by their stressed, time-poor parents into full-time care in shiny formal Centres.
These Centres are heavily regulated by the Government, have a new curriculum formulated by the Government, and as a universal entitlement, all parents have access to a range of taxpayer-funded rebates to help them meet the cost of that care.
What self-respecting Gen Xer wouldn’t take the ultimate career (and social) advantage of utilising full-time childcare? The answer is – most of them.
Recently released statistics from the ABS provide evidence that indicate the “me” generation, contrary to popular belief, are actually re-affirming the primacy of parenting in their childcare choices.
For example, only 22% of children aged 0-12 attend any type of formal childcare - and only around 7% of all children attending formal care did so full-time (35 hours or more).
So we’re talking about a fraction of less than 1% of all children attending formal care full-time.
Even in the peak age group of 0-4 year olds, 66% of children were cared for informally by parents or relatives, rather than in formal childcare. When it comes to children under 1 year old, that figure rises to 91%.
The average amount of time that those who attend formal care spend there is just 14 hours a week. Not exactly the impression we tend to get from the popular media.
The ABS survey really highlights the fact that parents are juggling a range of childcare options – but largely taking on the responsibility themselves. The vast majority of children in every age group are being cared for exclusively by their parents or a relative. In fact, more children are cared for informally by their grandparents (19%) than those who attend long daycare centres (12%).
Yes, those earnest baby boomers are actually regularly caring for more children than every community and for-profit Daycare Centre combined! The big question is, how on earth will they be able to do so without the benefit of the Rudd Government’s new mandatory Early Years Learning Framework formulated by learned academics?
The survey results clearly show that when policy makers talk about “childcare” we need to think beyond Long Day Care Centres and tax rebates for formal care. We need to look at things like flexible workplaces and support for parents and grandparents who take on that vital care role.
Of all working families, 64% reported using flexible work arrangements like working from home, part-time work, and shift work, in order to manage childcare - which is up from 56% in 1999. The most marked change is in the way Dads are managing their workload with 43% of all working fathers utilising flexible workplace conditions in order to organise childcare – that’s up from just 27% in 1999.
I’d suggest that new Minister Kate Ellis take a close look at these figures and put parents front and centre of the Childcare and Early Education debates.
It seems to me that Labors’ blinkered direction in focusing on the National Quality Framework, childcare ratios, qualifications for childcare workers etc, misses the vital fact that most children are being cared for informally and that parents are the most significant and important educators of all.
Further putting paid to the “me” generation myth – the report also showed that parents engaged in informal learning with their children with 99% of parents of 3 to 8 year olds either reading to or listening to their child read in the survey week.
The Government’s failure to put parents at the front of the childcare and early learning debate perpetuates the myth that formal childcare is the only choice for today’s busy Gen X parent. It’s certainly an important option – but it’s not “the norm” nor should it be put forward as the preferred option.
The problem will arise when Gen Y (and those following) are constantly fed the social message that formal childcare is a Government responsibility and a parental right.
Gen Y has already been characterised as having a heavy reliance on the “nanny state” and believing that Government has the answers to all problems. Let’s not have them come into parenthood thinking that ‘everyone’ is opting to put their kids in full-time care and that it’s just “the done thing”.
It clearly isn’t – and there are compelling reasons (both social and economic) for it not to become so.
If the selfish “me” generation can make the instinctive choice that it’s their responsibility to care for and parent their own children, let’s ensure we don’t rob the next generation of that joyous challenge.
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