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UK working hours would be shorter if pre-1980 trend had not been derailed, new study says

Until 1980, steady increase in productivity was rewarded with rises in both earnings and leisure time, think tank finds

Olesya Dmitracova
Economics and Business Editor
Thursday 12 September 2019 12:49 BST
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The average British worker spends 4,512 hours on unpaid overtime over their career, which amounts to more than half a year of unpaid work.
The average British worker spends 4,512 hours on unpaid overtime over their career, which amounts to more than half a year of unpaid work. (Getty)

Weekends in Britain would by now be starting at lunchtime on Friday and in 20 years we would not work on Fridays at all were it not for the decline of trade unions in the 1980s, new research suggests.

Between the end of World War II and the 1970s, a steady increase in productivity was rewarded with equally consistent rises in both earnings and leisure time, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) found.

But from around 1980 onwards, the decline in working hours slowed to a crawl, with no compensation through faster wage rises – even though productivity kept on growing apace until the 2008 financial crisis.

If the pre-1980 trend had continued, workers would now be working half a day less than they do today, roughly in line with annual working hours in Germany, according to the think tank. The UK would also be on track for a four-day working week by 2040.

“Hour by hour, day by day, we are giving an unnecessarily large proportion of our lives over to work,” said Aidan Harper, researcher at the NEF, noting that the average British worker spends 4,512 hours on unpaid overtime over their career. That amounts to over half a year of unpaid work.

A study by the TUC earlier this year also found that the typical full-time employee in the UK puts in 42 hours a week – nearly two hours more than the average across the EU and equivalent to an extra two and a half weeks a year.

Mr Harper added: “In a fair and just society free time would be viewed as an essential resource which we have a claim upon… It would mean building an economy that ensures that the gains of economic activity are shared evenly with workers not only in the form of pay but also in the form of working time reduction.”

One explanation for the stagnation in working hours since 1980 may be a fall in trade union membership, as well as less strict labour market regulation, the NEF said. The think tank will publish a fuller report on this trend later in the autumn.

Last month, the NEF said an increase in leisure time will help accelerate growth in Britain’s productivity, which has slowed down sharply since the financial crisis. Giving people more paid time off work will enable them to spend more, boosting demand in the economy and encouraging firms to invest, according to research by the think tank.

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