Global Perspective

May 3, 2006 Vol. 4, No. 3

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Virginia Saldanha is a woman activist working in India for the empowerment of women through Church institutions as well as networking with secular organizations in the struggle for justice and peace.



Families struggle to survive in a market economy

By Virginia Saldanha

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A holiday dinner at an uncle’s place was an opportunity to catch up with family news. Young people who were in university a couple of years ago are now youthful executives in multi-national companies. They spoke enthusiastically about their experiences in their new world of work. While it was apparent that they enjoyed being in a high salaried bracket, with the ability to have a “designer” lifestyle, I detected a note of deep concern in the older generation.

My cousin told me that her daughter works unusually long hours. She leaves home at 7:30 a.m. for a one-and-a-half-hour commute. Her work day starts 9 a.m. and ends anywhere from 8 p.m. to midnight. By the time this 25-year-old gets home, it could be 1 a.m. the next day! My cousin waits anxiously each evening for her daughter to return home safe. In a country where violence against women is an everyday occurrence, this nightly vigil is highly stressful.

A not so young executive cousin talked about the pressure they are under to maintain “peak performance” at work. A little slack and you risk getting orders to stay home. He spoke of a 45 year old man who had served in the organization for 18 years. He was asked to leave his job, when he began to show some slack due to stress. That is a scary scenario for any family breadwinner.

Profit, not the human person is the focus of the economy. Labour flexibility and production flexibility are buzzwords for cost effectiveness.

Not long ago, people joined an organization and stayed there all their work life. There was security in employment and in retirement. One or both parents went off to work at 7 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m. The family could enjoy at least one meal together. Parents met with their children. Working late was uncommon and restricted to only certain parts of the work year.

Now, young people just out of university and even high school are quickly absorbed into a highly competitive workforce. They are enthusiastic and energetic. With high salaries they bask in their new found economic power and freedom. The market offers unlimited possibilities to enjoy their hard earned money. Getting married and having a family is not on their agenda. “Sex is for recreation not procreation” is a new mantra. They work hard five days a week and party hard on the weekends -- in the interest of the market!

The media plays a powerful role in shaping the plans of these young people on weekends and holidays. The radio, newspapers and TV use tempting allurements to unwind and shop. Banks that helped people to save for a rainy day now encourage you to go out and spend by offering you the easy way to do it -- the credit card. If you see something you like, just buy it, even if you do not have money, buy on credit! The value “I shop, therefore I am” or “I am what I buy,” is strong with youth.

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Earlier this year, the Office of Human Development for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences brought together young people, bishops, priests, religious and an assortment of lay church workers from Asia. We gathered in Pattaya, Thailand, to commemorate 40 years of Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The sharing of experiences revealed a deep concern about the rapidly changing work culture in the context of the market economy that directly impacts family life.

People are being drawn into a culture of self-gratification, consumerism and individualism not related to responsibility. As long as workers are healthy, they can sell their labor in the market. Once they are disabled or sick even as a result of a poor or unsafe work environment, they are cast aside and become burdens on their families. Women and children are increasingly being drawn into the workforce as cheap and exploitable labour, while men are unemployed. This is the reality in many regions of Asia. It has many negative consequences for the average Asian family. These worrying trends are producing far-reaching consequences for future generations.

English speaking countries of Asia have become hubs of Business Process Outsourcing. Young people in their 20s and early 30s work long and odd hours to serve the Western world. They are working while the rest of the family and country is asleep. The relatively better salary is an attraction to work these unusual hours.

As one young person remarked, “The dream of young people from rural Asia is to land in a mega city. They are enticed by a free life style, where they can do anything as long as they can afford to do it. The [Business Process Outsourcing] is tailor-made for the fulfilment of such dreams.” On the other hand, traditional fisherfolk, farmers and other craftspeople rue that their children do not want to carry on their trade as they reject the hard physical labour involved and opt for the relatively easy desk job in the city.

The net result is no family life; days off are spent catching up on sleep or “chilling out” with friends in expensive haunts or getaways. There is no interaction in the community. Traditional occupations are dying away with negative consequence on the environment. Many rural areas are loosing their young people to the cities.

The traditional Asian extended family ties are getting weaker. Nuclear families are struggling to cope so young people are shying away from family responsibility. Young couples seem torn between the need to rake in adequate income to finance increasingly high standards of living and lifestyles, and the human need of family relationships. This work culture that exploits the youthful energy of the workforce produces a “burn out” by the age of 40. Unemployment in the above 40 age group is producing both social and economic problems for families.

The world is hurtling into a robotic existence of workers with shortened employment lives; a shrinking workforce; vulgar luxury for the rich and total indifference to the struggles of the poor and weak in a market economy. The family wrestles to survive with values that no longer support caring or making space for the other.

We need to stop, think and ask ourselves, what is happening to us? Where are we heading? The church has a prophetic duty to proclaim values that promote a different kind of life, life in abundance that Christ came to give the world. The family has to be rescued from clutches of mammon.

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