While doubtless there lurks somewhere on the wilder margins of Amazon a book entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, the former US president did not bequeath many aphorisms to posterity. One of them, though, deserves to be remembered. "You show me an executive who works all the time," Reagan is supposed to have remarked, with reference to a somewhat relaxed White House schedule of afternoon naps and periodic raids on the jelly-bean jar, "and I'll show you a bad executive."
The inference is clear. The smart business operator is distinguished by his ability to delegate, to do what is necessary but no more, to appreciate that a hands-on approach can sometimes be more detrimental to the way his or her organisation works than intermittent string-pulling from on high.
Naturally, none of this laxity cuts much ice here in the 24-7 workplace, an environment so frenetic, its ratchet so constantly cranked up to stun level, that senior health professionals are beginning to worry about the implications for national well-being. According to Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, widely quoted in last week's newspapers, the UK is suffering from a "maldistribution of work", whereby some people work far too hard and others not at all.
Lunch hours have gone, the commute home is a nightmare of email catch-ups and phone calls, and the raised stress levels consequent upon this continuous engagement mean that work-related mental health problems are becoming a major cause of absenteeism.
Unsurprisingly, Professor Ashton's solution to this imbalance is a shorter working regime and, its logical extension, a certain amount of redistribution of employment. "We need a four-day week so that people can enjoy their lives," he informed The Guardian, "have more time with their families, and maybe reduce high blood pressure because people might start exercising on that extra day." Well-intentioned, if not absolutely quixotic stuff, and one can imagine the hoots of laughter that would issue from the average City boardroom were this kind of thing to be put into a discussion paper by a human resources specialist who, it would be straightaway assumed, had taken leave of his senses.
Reading Professor Ashton's comments, I was reminded of a woman named Barbara, one of my father's colleagues in the 1970s at the Norwich Union Insurance Society, now a monstrous multinational behemoth that trades under the name of Aviva. Had you asked Barbara what calling she pursued at the company's Norwich HQ she would have answered, "I do addresses". And so, were a policy holder to write in informing his insurers of a change of domicile, Barbara would take out her card index and make the appropriate correction. There was even rumoured to be a second employee who acted as Barbara's assistant.
According to all the known laws of late capitalism, Barbara should have been a harassed drudge, for ever torturing herself at the prospect of the sack and pining for release from this monotonous thraldom. In fact, Barbara loved her job, was made desolate by her superannuation from it at 60 and declared that she would be happy to come back and work for nothing if her bosses would allow it. There was little stress attached to these routines, for the simple reason that the Norwich Union, like nearly every large employer of the time, was horribly over-staffed.
Throughout the 1970s my father left for work at 8.30am, enjoyed a capacious luncheon in the staff dining room, came home at 5.30pm and never gave the duties he had left behind him a moment's thought until he arrived back at his desk the following day. As late as the 1980s it was said that any 16-year-old with four GCSEs and a courteous demeanour could be guaranteed a job filing correspondence and answering telephones.
A quarter of a century later there are no more Barbaras, no more middle managers like my father and a great deal fewer 16-year-old trainees. What did for them was, on the one hand, the technological onrush that transferred Barbara's card indexes to computer files and the customer enquiries department to call centres, and, on the other, the rise of the hire-and-fire (but mostly fire), slimmed down, ultra-competitive, jump-on-his-testicles macho employment culture that is such a feature of the modern business. But where did this attitude come from?
As recently as the mid-19th century the ambition of most middle-class men was to do as little work as possible. One proved one's gentility by avoiding the nine to five, and Thackeray's first thought, having risen to the top of the literary pile by publishing Vanity Fair, was to try to acquire some government sinecure that would absolve him from the necessity of having to write at all.
At some point in the next 70 or 80 years the idea that the acme of bourgeois achievement was to luxuriate in what the classical authors used to call otium cum dignitate, which might be translated as "seemly leisure", transformed itself into an assumption that not only was work a suitable end in itself but the average person who undertook it, certainly the average man, somehow defined himself by it. Here, for example, is Evelyn Waugh's older brother Alec, writing in 1935: "Work, to the man who is worth anything, is his life. It is by the success or failure of his work that he sits in judgment on himself. His personal, private life, though not exactly a sideshow, is seen in relation to his work ..."
The terrifying thing about this 80-year-old piece of advice is how thoroughly up-to-date it sounds. But Waugh, it should be pointed out, was writing at a time when the first wave of American business primers was breaking on these shores, bringing with them a series of slogans whose echoes are still with us today. "You remember the line of talk" recalls the hero of Orwell's Coming Up For Air (1939). "Pep, punch, grit, sand. Get on or get out. There's plenty of room at the top. You can't keep a good man down." If the working environment of the past 20 years or so has made this kind of litany even more resonant, it is because of the number of worker ants who have been forced to get out.
The nationalised industries, the pre-mechanised production lines – all the old failsafe sources of modestly paid mass employment have gone, and the first act of an incoming chief executive at a high-street bank is to announce "rationalisation", that fine old euphemism for firing people.
Most of this, it has to be said, is simple posturing. Just as the old-style Norwich Union employed more personnel than it had to, largely because of its paternalistic tradition of providing jobs for local people, so most large financial institutions can afford to hire many more people than they do without trouble to their bottom lines.
Alas, modern business orthodoxy demands as few overworked drudges on the premises as is consistent with employment law. But what about the Barbaras of this world? What about the millions of people with no very great ambition who merely want to occupy themselves usefully and decently without having their lives wrecked by 14-hour days and ever-emailing tyrants?
Despite all the optimistic noises made by government agencies, we can't all be software designers and computer programmers. And so, like many another part of the modern fabric, meaningful "work" is increasingly becoming the carefully sequestered province of a diminishing elite – a not terribly happy elite, by the sound of it – while the rest of the world looks on from beyond the bars.