Are we really working harder than ever?

From the inaugural public lecture by Francis Green, the professor of economics at the University of Kent at Canterbury

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A frequent response these days to the greeting "how are you doing?" is not "fine", as it always used to be, but "busy" or, if things are unusually bad, "frantic". For many commentators, the idea that we are all working harder than we used to is taken for granted. We have been subjected for several years to a string of social pronouncements from management and psychology gurus. Perhaps the ones that worry us most are those from across the Atlantic. A new social disease is hitting us, called "Hurry Sickness".

A frequent response these days to the greeting "how are you doing?" is not "fine", as it always used to be, but "busy" or, if things are unusually bad, "frantic". For many commentators, the idea that we are all working harder than we used to is taken for granted. We have been subjected for several years to a string of social pronouncements from management and psychology gurus. Perhaps the ones that worry us most are those from across the Atlantic. A new social disease is hitting us, called "Hurry Sickness".

It is spreading to Britain from California, presaged by images of the high-pressure Silicon Valley. We are, it is said, becoming "time bankrupts", a curious but evocative metaphor. If time is money, as the old saying goes, what happens when we run out of it? Addiction to long hours at the workplace is encapsulated in the phrase "workaholic", which more and more of us are said to be turning into.

It is more likely that the widespread sense of rising work pressure is linked to the fact that, within this average, there are more people (of both sexes) working longer and more people working shorter hours. About one in six were working over 48 hours a week in 1981, but this rose to one in five by the end of the 1990s - a palpable increase, matched by a parallel rise in short-hours working.

Even more pertinent, the hours that were being worked were becoming increasingly concentrated in households. Thus, the average two-adult household put in an extra seven hours of work per week at the end of the 1990s, compared to the early 1980s; meanwhile, there were many more households by the 1990s where there was nobody in work at all - around one in five. So, while work hours are not getting any worse on average, they are getting more concentrated.

If we split the economy into sectors, we find that an increase in effort of one sector goes hand in hand with a relative decrease in its wages. In the 1990s, the education sector was the victim: while it raised its overall work effort faster than any other sector of the economy, its wages, though just about keeping pace with inflation, fell behind other sectors.

There has been a redistribution of insecurity in Britain. It is those groups who were traditionally relatively secure, and who were close to the media and other sources of influence, that experienced big increases in insecurity. Professional workers went, during this time, from being the most secure to the one of the least secure of occupational groups, while other w orkers' insecurity decreased remarkably, no doubt due to the rising overall performance of the economy. On average there was no change.

All the modern hype about work insecurity overlooks the fact that capitalism is a system that has always had some insecurity built into it. But only when it hits the "chattering classes" does it appear to become an issue for public discussion.

More remarkably, all the evidence points to an intensification of work during working hours. This intensification of work started at least in the early 1980s. Contrary to rumour, this intensification is not linked to any supposed increase in job insecurity forcing people to work harder out of fear of losing their job. The rumour that job insecurity has risen, despite falling unemployment, may have been fuelled by rising insecurity in certain occupations and industries that have good access to the media. For another thing, those in insecure jobs do not work harder than those in secure jobs. Falling union power explains why work has been intensified at a greater rate in Britain than elsewhere in Europe.

The most significant underlying factors are probably changing technology and work organisation. These changes especially raise the productivity of high-effort workers, thus in the long run significantly raising the demand for workers who are prepared to put in high levels of work effort. In this respect, the call centre is the assembly-line of the modern era.

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