Leading Article: The social costs and personal benefits of working on holidays

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The Independent Culture
WE CAN all sympathise with Church pronouncements that we work too hard. Yesterday Roman Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume, and the new Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, lamented the number of people working over Christmas. They argued that quality of family and communal life should not be sacrificed to make way for the long hours Britons increasingly devote to the workplace.

They are right to be concerned. We have all been long promised that automation would bring shorter working hours and less stressful working environments. In practice, this has not worked out. Hours of work have risen; overtime and weekend working are more prevalent than ever before. Britons work harder than any other Europeans.

Cardinal Hume and Bishop Jones are right that there is more to life than work. Social needs have also to be satisfied, and there are all too many signs that this is not so. The number of divorces, the prevalence of single parenthood, and general sense of civic malaise that they divine is no illusion.

It is not really enough to argue that the world economy demands that we work harder and harder: we have to work harder for something, strive towards some goal, or work can become meaningless.

The problem with the bishops' argument is these issues are separate ones: they cannot always be run together, and given one cause labelled "too much work". Each separate problem they outline has its own causes, and possible solutions.

There are many reasons why families break up. There is no single truth as to why families disintegrate. It is a debate which will engage sociologists and anthropologists well into the next millennium. All we can argue with certainty is that such vast changes are not simply due to people working harder.

The exploitation of workers is a more specific issue, demanding different solutions. Primarily, this means legislation. There are, rightly, laws - many of them campaigned for by the churches - to prevent people being worked to exhaustion. They have recently been strengthened by the adoption of the 48-hour working week. No one should have to work longer than they feel they can, a point the bishops do well to reinforce.

They have a point, too, when it comes to public holidays. We will lose something, some sense of shared time, place and identity, if our national holidays lose their meaning. These holidays should remain special. Those who wish to work should still be able to. But the right to those holidays should be retained.

All the same, little good will come from attempting to impose a sense of national identity. There is no British equivalent of Bastille Day in France, or Independence Day in the US. No such shared experience will be effective unless people believe in it. A multicultural society, increasingly exposed to world media and global culture, inevitably reinforces this process. This does not mean that time off is irrelevant, but simply that it is harder to get everyone to agree on the time when we should share that moment.

From the rhetoric of church and business leaders, one would think that social and economic needs were incompatible. This need not be so. Working longer hours is not necessarily an indication of avarice: it usually springs from the oldest and most laudable moral urge: to protect and nurture one's family.

Nor is offering employment over holidays wrong: it gives opportunities to those who desire more flexibility in when they go to work. The challenge is to find the right balance between those moral aims, and the right to a personal life, which can sustain civic duty.