The new working time directive: don't go home

'Lunch-breaks have been replaced by a bloke selling sandwiches with ever more exotic fillings'
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The Independent Online

New technology is not changing our lives as much as the politicians claim. "In a few years time," they say, "we'll all be working from home." Everyone? What about dustmen then? Will they stand on their doorstep with a huge dustpan and brush on a long piece of elastic?

New technology is not changing our lives as much as the politicians claim. "In a few years time," they say, "we'll all be working from home." Everyone? What about dustmen then? Will they stand on their doorstep with a huge dustpan and brush on a long piece of elastic?

In the Seventies, the main worry about the way we'd be in the year 2000 was how we would use all our spare time. Most predictions envisaged all production being carried out by microchip, and housework being done by slightly camp robots with a dry sense of humour, leaving humans to wander the streets dressed in aluminium foil.

Instead we're working longer hours than at any time since the First World War, and the latest survey of working trends shows that the fastest-growing sector of the labour market is cleaning the houses of busy people. Partly this is because the inventions of the last 30 years haven't had the impact of the products that arrived in the previous 30, such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines and telephones.

For example, the television changed our lives, but once it was in colour, none of the adaptations made much difference. Except when the manufacturers decided that it was too tiresome to walk across to the thing to change the channel, wasting six or seven seconds. So they invented the remote control, which only takes 45 minutes of going, "maybe it's down the back of the settee".

But also it's because of a new workplace culture in which set working hours are almost abolished, and everyone's expected to devote their entire life to the company. So the trains from central London are packed with people leaving work up until half past nine in the evening.

Even lunch-breaks have been replaced by a bloke who comes round with sandwiches, with ever more exotic fillings like "Viennese cornflake with mustard". "We'll all have to come in on Sunday," announces the manager cheerily, and if anyone protests that they were planning to go out or away for the weekend, the boss looks puzzled, as if he's a character in The Prisoner. You expect him to say, "where is this 'out' to which you refer?"

Everyone is either single or goes out with someone else in the workplace, as a relationship with someone outside would be almost impossible. Though maybe someone will spot a gap in the market there, and offer a service for people who want to try. Busy professionals will be able to look in the Yellow Pages, and ring for someone to spend the night with their partner for them. "Just twice a week, so that's one less thing I've got to worry about during this hectic spring schedule."

Kids are even more unlikely. Unless you can afford a nanny to feed, clothe, educate and entertain them, and you can probably get a clause in the contract that when the kid grows up, they're obliged to put the nanny in a home.

On top of that, the inventions that have made an impact have increased the workload. Mobile phones and laptops mean that people are expected to work on the way to work. Even in the cotton mills, the workers weren't expected to take a power loom away with them when they left, and keep weaving all the way home.

Which is why it's so comical to see these articles about the pressures of time that state, "We have to decide whether we wish to continue working these hours, or cut down and go without the odd luxury." As if most people have a choice, and when the manager asks them to do a job, they can say, "Well I've thought it through. And I've decided to go to the pictures instead."

It's not we who decide. And they prefer a "flexible" workforce that stays all evening at a moment's notice for no overtime. The result is that more people than ever have no time. Which is why cooking is becoming a luxury, whereas for anyone getting home at half past nine, eating out is becoming the standard thing to do.

It was during the Industrial Revolution that our attitudes towards time were forged. One of the main objects of Sunday School was to instil among kids a new awareness of time, suited to the new factories.

Before then few households owned a clock, and the working day tended to start when the family felt like it, discipline deriving from the knowledge that everything had to be made by market day. So Monday was known as "Saint Monday" with everyone taking an unofficial day off, the week becoming gradually more frenetic until a mad rush on the day before market. Maybe that was the best attitude towards time and work, and one still practised by students.

They tell you they've got to research and write a 5,000 word essay, and hand it in tomorrow morning. So you reply, "Blimey, that's tough. When did they give it you to do?" And they say, "A year ago last November."

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