Philip Whiteley's Blog

February 18, 2010

Oh no, it’s déjà vu again

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:08 pm

The trouble with déjà vu is that it keeps on coming back. I recall from the early 1980s engaging in earnest discussions about the potential of a shorter working week. It was a time when stressed travelling salespeople and managers were whizzing around in a country with nearly 3.5 million people unemployed. ‘By the year 2000,’ some people projected, ‘We’d come up with ways to shorten the working week and share the labour more.’

Well, 2000 has been and gone and we’re still waiting. The New Economics Foundation has now re-issued the call in a ‘radical’ report called 21 Hours. It’s unclear, however, that the chances are much higher now that we’ll all agree to divvy up work like slicing up a pie. And I’m not at all sure about some of the underlying assumptions.

Anna Coote, of the Foundation, was quoted in Human Resources magazine as saying: ‘So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. And our consumption habits are squandering the earth’s natural resources. Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We’d have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours. And we could even become better employees: less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive.’

Wow. There are so many unproven assumptions at play here, it’s difficult to know where to start. First of all, we ‘live to work, work to earn and earn to consume’. I’ve yet to meet a single person for whom these are the core reasons for working: achievement, status and interesting job content are of huge importance, yet not mentioned here.

Next, ‘squandering the earth’s resources’. Well, that depends on the nature of economic activity. If green politics is about the hair shirt, rather than sustainable goods and services, it will sink and deserve to.

‘More time to be better parents, citizens etc’ Well, yes, as long as the time is well spent. Children do want to have quality time with their parents, but they don’t want them there all the time, and they want to be proud of them. This is a three-dimensional issue, not a question of the quantum of face-to-face time.

‘We could become better employees’. It’s damaging to work more than is healthy, but it is irresponsible to leave work with a vital customer query or other task undone. It should be focused on quality of task, not a set number of hours. The real reason for high unemployment accompanying long hours is weak skills, as it was in the 1980s.

When Susan Bloch and I wrote ‘How to Manage in a Flat World’ a couple of years ago, we discovered that what mattered for a lot of busy managers was not shorter hours per se, but more autonomy, and ability to manage workplace and personal relationships.

Engagement, relationships, achievement, legacy. That’s what people want from life. And from work. It can’t be measured in hours and minutes. The New Economics Foundation report raises some interesting points, but puts forward mechanistic solutions. And it’s no more ‘radical’ than a Sinclair C5 or a pair of leg-warmers.


1 Comment »

  1. I agree. There’s an awful lot of trendy claptrap written about sustainability. Mostly the effects of global warming are out of our hands. And it’s more to do with rising standards of living and aspirations in India and China than about switching the lights off over here or beetling about in a Toyota Prius!

    Regarding working to live, living to work and conspicuous consumption etc. everyone has different motivations. Work is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s about feeling valued. Having a mission, feeling that we contribute etc.

    Journalists tend to make wild generalisations and assumptions based on their experience – or lack of it! There are no easy answers.

    Comment by stephen hoare — February 18, 2010 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

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