Individualisation hasn't gone away, you know

Dear, oh dear. Charlie McCreevy is beginning to look more and more like Margaret Thatcher, with his overweening self-confidence…

Dear, oh dear. Charlie McCreevy is beginning to look more and more like Margaret Thatcher, with his overweening self-confidence and sideswipes at "left-wing pinkos". To qualify as one of the latter it seems to be sufficient to query any aspect of the booming economy or to express the slightest note of caution about where all this new-found prosperity is taking us.

Being a gambling man, Charlie has bet his political shirt and that of Fianna Fail on the feel-good factor of a few extra punts in the pay-packet. He is betting that once the middle classes realise how much better off they are under the new tax measures, dissent on individualisation will go away.

He is wrong. In the last 10 days, seven different people have spoken to me about their anger at policies which stack the deck against single-income married families. While one or two of these people might be a fainter shade of pink, most of them are from middle Ireland, the traditional heartland of Fianna Fail.

No one is disputing that it is nicer to be a country awash with money than a country whose major export was bright young people. No one is begrudging the improvement in lifestyle which some have experienced. But people are beginning to express unease that the economy is being allowed to dictate social policy rather than function as one of its tools.


It is obvious why the many who have not benefited from the boom should be angry. But what is not being recognised is that many people who are doing very well financially are also feeling disquiet about our priorities as a society.

A lot of this unease crystallised around individualisation. Charlie McCreevy, with typical pragmatism, recognised that more and more women were in the paid workforce. Without pausing to ask whether this was automatically a good thing, or even a freely chosen option, he decided to reinforce this trend by treating married families differently under the tax code depending on whether their income came from one parent or two.

And he genuinely cannot understand even still why all hell broke loose. He is focused on two things: lower tax rates and keeping the economy booming. He seems unable to see that other people might have different priorities. Or even to recognise that sections of the electorate plan to punish Fianna Fail severely at the next election for being so out of touch with their concerns.

He thought he could get away with offending the 103,000 families who will be affected directly by the individualisation measure, because of the pleasure of those who will benefit financially. What he failed to recognise is that many people are deeply uneasy about the trend towards both parents working full-time outside the home.

And boy, do they work. Frazzled parents face traffic gridlock and pressure to work long hours which give them less and less time with their children. Many of them wonder in the few spare moments they can call their own what it is all for. Both women and men are aware that they are not seeing as much of their children as they would like.

Most women under 35 grew up with the idea that the key to personal fulfilment was a career and economic independence. Many of them now question whether a job which functions primarily as a means to pay a mortgage is any kind of aid to personal happiness, particularly when they rarely get to sit down in that mortgaged house.

Being active in the paid workforce might have looked very glamorous to the sisterhood 30 years ago, but many women living that reality are significantly less enchanted. Deeply aware that their mothers were restricted in choices about working outside the home, they are equally aware that they themselves are even less likely to be able to work full-time inside the home, even for a few years. Swapping one limitation for another hardly qualifies as liberation.

According to the ESRI, we have a very high rate of women under 35 in paid work. By 2011 we are expected to have the highest figures in the EU in this regard. More significantly, among mothers, women with young children are the ones most likely to be in the paid workforce.

Ironically, at a time when arguably they would most like to be with their children, they are also most likely to be working full-time. Of Irish mothers in paid employment, those with children under five are 21/2 times more likely to be working full-time rather than part-time.

Parental attention ensures a strong anchor for children, and strong families anchor communities. We now have whole estates virtually empty during the day. The networks which looked out for neighbours' children and the elderly are being dismantled. Voluntary organisations are desperate for volunteers, because naturally enough, exhausted parents want to spend time with their children when they are not at work.

Western society has acted in the last 15 years as though adults were interchangeable in children's lives and that good paid childcare could make up for any loss of time with a parent. There is significant research that this is very naive. In order to grow and develop, children need to attach securely to one person, usually the mother.

This parent becomes attuned to the child's cues, a vital part of the development of relationship skills and language. Mothers used to smile indulgently when Dad came in from work and looked desperately to her to translate the toddler's babble because she understood it perfectly. Now, quite often, you have two parents equally baffled.

Children are very resilient, and the vast majority of parents are killing themselves to provide a strong anchor for their families. But many parents resent the closing down of their options caused by being slaves to mortgages and slaves to the market. Twenty or even 40 extra quid in the pay packet does nothing to address these concerns.

We have a shameful record of child poverty which must be tackled. But let us not forget the emotional poverty which ensues when a society acts as if having a parent at home for a few years is a luxury reserved for the very rich. We only have to look to the US and the bitter harvest it is reaping.

Obviously, it is neither possible nor desirable to go back to the past. But we urgently need creative leadership which will explore how family and work demands can best be balanced, not just for the sanity of adults but for the good of our children.

It probably says all we need to know about Charlie McCreevy's priorities that, while his tax measures kick in now, his paltry increase in child benefit does not come into play until September. Another proof, if one were needed, that the economy, and not children, comes first in the McCreevy universe.

Breda O'Brien will write a column each Saturday. A part-time teacher and a mother, she wrote until recently for the Sunday Business Post