Thursday 26 January 2023

No time for leisure


Governments govern, oppositions oppose. It’s a simple enough rule, and one which the Conservatives in Cardiff Bay follow with gusto. The point, though, is that opposition is supposed to demonstrate to the electorate that there is an alternative to what the government is doing and, in purely electoral terms, to do so in a way which wins votes for the opposition party. Their enthusiasm for opposing anything and everything sometimes seems to blind the Tories to the second part of what opposition is about.

Take their opposition to the proposed trial of a reduction in the working week. The alternative proposition that they are putting forward seems to be that the working week should be maintained at its current level, and people should not be allowed more leisure time. It’s not at all clear to whom that proposition is supposed to appeal – given a choice between working four days a week and working five days a week for the same pay, what exactly drives the Tories to believe that people will vote for the party offering them the longer week? Or are they really so wedded to the idea of selfishness as the only driver of all human activity that they believe that those who don’t get the chance to work reduced hours will vote enthusiastically against the idea that anyone else should get that opportunity?

There is nothing special or magic about the idea of a five day week. Indeed, it’s not even that long-established as a concept. When I was a child, my father was in an office job with a five-and-a-half-day week; Saturday mornings were a normal part of the working week, and the ‘weekend’ was one and a half days long (or one and a bit by the time he got home). The reduction from five and a half didn’t happen for everyone at the same time – some employers acted before others. That will always be the case, but is hardly a reason for no-one to make the change. The same is true for all reductions in the number of hours worked per week; between 35 and 37 looks more or less normal today, but it hasn’t always been that way. It was 40 when I started work, and it’s not so long since 45 to 48 was much more common.

It's not irrelevant that the fastest and largest reductions in the working week happened during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time when prosperity overall was rising, and where the increases in prosperity were, to a degree at least, shared between capital and labour. From the 1980s onwards, not only has the rate of increase in prosperity slowed, but the way it is shared out has changed too – more and more ends up in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Both are the direct result of a failed economic experiment which started from the assumption that allowing the rich to get richer would make everyone better off in the end.

Different cultures rule in different workplaces. I’ve worked for one company where presenteeism was the norm: managers worked long hours and staff who arrived after their managers or left before them were definitely frowned upon, to put it mildly. Failing to respond to emails for some pathetic excuse such as being on holiday or off sick was another big no-no. The contracts of employment might have referred to a 35 hour week, but anyone who actually worked only 35 hours didn’t last long. Whether the staff were more productive as a result is another question entirely. Bad employers have a tendency to confuse productivity with hours worked, whereas it’s really about what is achieved within those hours. There is some evidence that shorter hours do not reduce output, although that is likely to vary between different contexts. An employee minding a widget-making machine will find that the number of widgets he can make depends on the capacity of the machine: shorter hours = fewer widgets. But that doesn’t necessarily follow for an office environment where the output is, in many cases, difficult to measure anyway. Improving morale – by, for instance, reducing hours worked – can obviously have an impact.

The problem that the Tories have is that they are wedded to an ideology under which most of us exist only to serve the needs of employers, to which end we should devote all our time and energy. From that perspective, any request for more leisure time is as preposterous as Oliver’s request for a little more gruel. It challenges their understanding of what humanity is all about. The alternative view, that society should be about facilitating the growth and development of humans as individuals outside the workplace is anathema to them. “Keep your noses to the grindstone” is the limit of their understanding. It may have some ideological validity from their perspective, but it still puzzles me why they think that proposition will appeal to the electorate more than the prospect of more leisure time.

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