WHEN a Conservative minister says that businesses are (partly) to blame for the break-up of the family by forcing employees to spend 'outrageous' hours at work, away from their children, you know something is rotten in the state of capitalism.
As the Independent on Sunday reported last week, Alistair Burt, a junior minister at the Department of Social Security, has warned that 'responsible parenting' is under severe pressure. 'Some of the most deprived children in society have every material convenience available to them,' he told a conference of Scottish Tories. 'All they lack is their parents' time and affection because it is so committed elsewhere.'
While party ideologues squirm at the thought that two of its truest and bluest tenets - family and the market economy - might be in conflict, the rest of the country may wonder what happened to the freedom that enterprise was supposed to deliver.
John Maynard Keynes predicted that automation would, one day, lead to a 15-hour week and that the biggest single problem facing the nation would be what to do with all the spare time.
By 1963, Harold Wilson was promising 'undreamed-of living standards and the possibility of leisure on an unbelievable scale'.
He envisaged a society basking in the white heat of technology, the only risk being sunburn.
At the end of the Seventies, a book called The Collapse of Work, by Clive Jenkins, then leader of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, and Barrie Sherman, the union's research director, was in great demand.
Jenkins and Sherman defined work as 'a non-pleasurable activity which attracts a monetary compensation' and spoke of a 'leisure revolution'. The microchip would drive the new technology that would force some people out of work, but lighten the load for the rest.
So what went wrong? Well, there has been a hefty expansion in the free time of an increasing sector of the population - but the 2.9 million unemployed may not appreciate it.
The growth in those who can find only part-time work adds to the numbers with free time, yet since their income is also part- time they lack the means to exploit it fully.
A Sports Council report, Into the 90s, divided the nation's leisure requirements into two categories - those with time on their hands but no money, and those with money but little time.
The reality for many in work is longer hours and greater stress. More people suffer cardiac arrests and strokes between 8am and 9am on Monday mornings than in any other 60-minute period.
The average number of hours worked each week has fallen from about 42 in the Eighties to 40 today. But according to Cary Cooper, a professor in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, these figures are based on manufacturing, which is in decline.
In the service sector the working week has increased from around 40 hours to 48.
What leisure we do have is snatched. City of London gyms are buzzing by 6.30am, as workers try to cram in 40 minutes' exercise before dealing begins at 7.30am. 'History tells you that, rather than reducing the pace of life, technology actually increases it,' Professor Cooper said. 'I come into the office in the morning and there are reams of fax paper from all over the world. I go to my answering machine to pick up my calls, and then I turn on my computer and find 72 messages in my electronic mail.
'It's an information explosion. And with new technology, people demand an instant response . . . technology has made our working life more stressful.'
James Murphy, of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, raised another factor. As more women go out to work (up 11 per cent to 12.3 million since 1986) they demand that their partners help in the home.
'Women have entered the labour market in previously unexperienced numbers, but they are still expected to shoulder the burden of the household duties. There is now a corrective response from men to pitch in. The cumulative effect is a pressure on disposable leisure time.'
Getting home to 'pitch in' presupposes leaving the office. But in Britain, loyalty still seems to be judged by hours spent at one's desk rather than the results achieved at it. British men spend, on average, four and a half hours more in the office each week than their German counterparts.
And if people do not stay late, they at least give the impression of doing so. Professor Cooper called it the 'jacket on the chair syndrome', a reference to the practice of having two jackets: one over the back of your chair next to your cluttered desk, the second to be worn as you make your way home.
The recession has made matters worse. The same volume of work is often being done by fewer people, who fear for their own future. You no longer pretend to be in the office. You are in the office. City bankers call it 'American masochism' - putting yourself through a pointless and unproductive period of work to prove to your superiors that you are prepared to undertake tasks which you do not want or have to do. 'Often the fear is more stressful than redundancy itself,' Professor Cooper said.
Work may have increased income, but not quality of life. One in three marriages ends in divorce, a statistic that Zelda West- Meade, of Relate, thinks is linked to overwork.
She said: 'About 50 per cent of men who work long hours say it has an adverse effect on their family. Very often the man comes home exhausted and drained, with little time or energy to give to his relationship or his children. Partners feel a sense of isolation and rage at the employers for the pressure being placed on the husband, which culminates in discontent with their life together.
'Leisure time is what people crave but they are too worried to take it. I've been speaking to people recently whose companies issue redundancies on days off or holidays.'
Mr Murphy believes the predictions of unlimited leisure were made by technologists who paid little heed to the social conditions required to effect change.
'There was a lot of futuristic gibberish spoken about an appetite for unlimited leisure. In truth, there's only so much you can live with, otherwise you get bored.'
About 30 per cent of working Britons do not use their full annual holiday entitlement. 'The motivation for work is not just to earn a crust, but for the social contact. It's not an environment from which you want to be absent.'
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