The short working week has had its day

It may be we are in the early stages of a trend towards longer hours that could last for the next 30 years or more
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So the EU, prompted by the French, want to end the British opt-out on the working hours directive ... and there is the predictable fuss. The employers say it is going to narrow our competitive advantage by chipping away at our flexible labour laws. The unions see no reason why our workers should not have the same conditions as their fellows on the Continent.

So the EU, prompted by the French, want to end the British opt-out on the working hours directive ... and there is the predictable fuss. The employers say it is going to narrow our competitive advantage by chipping away at our flexible labour laws. The unions see no reason why our workers should not have the same conditions as their fellows on the Continent.

Each side can advance perfectly rational reasons for their position. Our flexible labour market has helped our economy to grow faster and we have much lower unemployment than most of the Continent. On the other hand Britons do work long hours by EU standards, though short when compared with the US or Japan.

So how to cut through the undergrowth of argument and see what is actually happening? There are really two rather different ways of dealing with this sort of issue. One is the conventional and perfectly reasonable approach, which is to ask where, in the light of changing circumstances, should the appropriate balance of regulation and flexibility lie? The other and more radical approach is to start with the question: how are we in the ageing developed world going to earn our living in the future? Then see where that leads on issues such as working hours.

There is nothing wrong with starting with a conventional perspective. We have in Europe a history of 150 years of labour market regulation, from the Factory Acts to such great inventions as Otto von Bismarck's state pension for workers. Seen through that prism, the debate is about whether the present working week fits the balance people want between shorter hours and higher incomes.

Until recently it seemed inevitable that hours would get ever shorter. Writers in the 1930s forecast the two- or three-hour working day by the 1960s, a prospect that seemed rational given the automation that was happening in the factories. In the space of one generation the standard annual leave in Europe has risen from two weeks to four or five, sometimes even six.

But now there are signs of a turning point. It may be we are in the early stages of a trend towards longer hours that could last for the next 30 years or more. Evidence of that are the signs of a retreat from the 35-hour week in France and the agreed lengthening of hours (for no more pay) in several large German companies in exchange for preserving jobs. We simply don't know how far this trend will run - much depends on the level of competition from lower-cost producers and the ability to increase productivity in Europe still further. But it is quite natural under these circumstances to expect companies to be under pressure to lengthen hours and working people, in unions or not, to resist this.

Politicians will have to try to mediate between them, as our own government will have to do on the EU opt-out. But the problem for politicians is that they are bound to dissatisfy. The combination of a shrinking European workforce, the costs of an ageing society, and ever-greater competition from China and India will make it impossible to promise both higher pay and shorter hours. The squeeze has hardly begun.

So increasingly the "what is the right balance of legislation?" question will give way to the "how are we going to earn our living?" one.

There is a host of issues here. For a start, work for many people is no longer turning up to a place, doing something for several hours, then going home. Anyone who is self-employed is already out of that loop and there are 3.6 million of them. There are 7.4 million part-timers. Nearly one-third of the workforce is now not in conventional full-time employment.

In addition, more and more people - even those in full-time jobs - are on some form of piece-work, where they are paid less by the hours they put in and more by the work they do. Piece-work used to have a bad name. This system does indeed work very badly in factories, where every change in a task has to be negotiated and has potential for conflict. But in the more fluid world of on-screen work, with people doing different tasks in small groups or at home, it makes more sense. Homes have increasingly become factories - how many people reckon they have better computer kit at home than in the office?

A further factor is labour mobility. People have always moved for better jobs, or at least they have tried to. Europeans went to America largely because the economic opportunities appeared better than at home; Europe is now experiencing similar pressures from migration from poorer countries for the same reason. What is new is the increase in movement by young professionals, who can find the countries that best suit their own preference in the balance between leisure and standard of living. Migration patterns suggest that the US and to a lesser extent the UK are the "hot" destinations for this youthful elite. Any European who moves to the US is implicitly making the choice for longer working hours.

The final factor that comes up is retirement. Bismarck initially chose the age of 70 for the state retirement age - he was 74 at the time - and it was only in 1916 that the age was lowered to 65. So the idea of the 65 cut-off is less than 90 years old and with increasing life-spans seems, well, odd.

That conventionally leads to the anguished pension debate: how best can a shrinking group of working people provide for an ever-larger group of retired. But there is also a choice issue. Most people in full-time jobs will end up working for around 64,000 hours in their lifetime - 1,600 hours a year for 40 years. If they choose to pack in the hours while young and retire early that should as far as possible be their choice. If they want to carry on working that again should surely be their choice. Equally if they are prepared to have a lower standard of living and work fewer hours, that too should be their choice ... as long as they clearly understand what they are doing.

If you look at the world of work in this sort of way, the role of government becomes rather different. It is no longer trying to mediate between different interest groups. It is helping people understand the consequences of the decisions they are taking. Some people will choose to be self-employed, giving up security in return for freedom - not forgetting those who become self-employed of necessity rather than choice. Some will work longer hours perhaps to save money and hence retire earlier. Others will deliberately downsize their work so they can enjoy other things.

The task of government at a national or an EU level will be less to set standards and more to explain choices: less a role of mediation and regulation; more one of leadership and education. That is surely a more attractive job. It means acknowledging that any European country, indeed any developed country, is embarking on a set of changes that will prove as radical as the industrial revolution. But it means that governments will no longer be forced by political momentum to make promises on which they cannot deliver.

So this row over working hours has rather a 1960s flavour to it, a debate appropriate in a world that is fast disappearing - a world of relative stability rather than seismic change, a world where the developed countries call the shots. There will still be a row. But in another 20 years it will seem a rum issue to be fighting about.

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