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Labour without end?

Futurologists, Alvin Toffler being the best known, have long heralded the imminent arrival of the "post-industrial society" – an arcadia in which automation has almost done away with work and our main problem will be how to cope with an excess of leisure. Indeed, labour productivity has risen steadily and at an accelerating rate throughout the last century, except for a blip in the period 1975-85, when labour productivity in the US (though not in Western Europe) fell slightly. But it is only in a rational (i.e., socialist) society, where the means of life serve the community as a whole, that higher productivity will equal less work.

It is a little recognized fact that since the 1970s working hours have tended to rise. There appear to be only two books about recent trends in working time: Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (BasicBooks, 1992) and Pietro Basso, Modern Times, Ancient Hours. Working Lives in the Twenty-First Century (translated from Italian by Giacomo Donis; Verso, 2003). Schor is concerned with the US and has a reformist orientation, while Basso attempts a Marxian analysis and focuses more on Europe. Today's young wage and salary workers work longer hours than their parents and grandparents did at the same age. There is less time not only for relaxation, hobbies, self-education, and political activity, but even for parenting, family life, sleep, socializing, and sex – much to the detriment of our quality of life and physical and emotional health.

It isn't just a matter of the number of hours per day, week, or year. Working time has been "rationalized" as well as increased. That means greater intensity of effort and reduced opportunity for rest, social interaction, and even going to the toilet during the workday (zero "dead time," also known as the Toyota system). It means "variable" or "flexible" schedules – flexible for the boss, not the worker – with more night and weekend work to keep costly machinery in nonstop operation. Many couples now meet only to hand over the kids as they change shifts. And while some are mercilessly overworked, others are thrown out of work altogether, all in the name of profitability.

Working time has gone through some dramatic ups and downs in the course of history. Chattel slaves, of course, were forced to work long hours, though not always as long as wage slaves in the early days of capitalism, when 14 or even 16-hour days and 7-day weeks (i.e., 5,000 hours a year or more) were imposed on children and adults alike. Medieval peasants, by contrast, had led a more leisurely life. Thanks largely to the numerous holidays of the church calendar, according to four studies of Britain in the 13th to 16th centuries they typically worked 2,000 hours a year or less. The working hours of "primitive" tribal people also tend to be relatively short. Capitalist "progress" put paid to such idleness.

In the mid-19th century working hours stood at about 3,500 hours a year (according to studies of Britain in 1840 and the US in 1850). In England the Ten Hours Bill (May 1, 1848) brought the work week down to 60 hours in the countryside (where the Sabbath was enforced) and 70 hours in the cities (where it was not). For decade after decade the working class movement struggled for the 8-hour day, but it was not achieved until after World War I. Children were finally taken out of the mines and factories and put in school. Eventually the weekend and annual vacation came (though not for all). By the late 1940s the typical work year in most "developed" countries was down below 2,000 hours – just about where it had been in the middle ages.
After this the story varies somewhat from country to country. In France and Germany, where the trade unions fought for "work sharing" and the 35-hour week, the postwar decades saw a further modest decline in working hours. Paid vacations are much longer in these countries than in the US and Japan.  In the US working hours were stable in the 1950s and 1960s, only to start rising again in the 1970s: the average work week increased by almost three hours between 1973 and 1997. In Britain the rise in hours appears to have levelled off in recent years. According to the UK Labour Force Survey, the proportion of employed persons usually working over 45 hours a week rose from 21 percent in 1991 to 24 percent in 1997 and then fell to 19 percent in 2003.
Many American activists make a great deal of the contrast between the US and Europe and point to Europe as a model for the US to emulate. However, the same processes are underway in Europe, and indeed throughout the world, even though they are more advanced in the US and Japan. (And in China the 11 or 12-hour day is standard.) Only certain groups of European production workers ever won the 35-hour week. For example, German metalworkers and typographers won an agreement for the 35-hour week in 1984, though it did not come into force until 1995. In exchange they had to accept intensified work regimes and "flexible" hours, including weekend work. Moreover, the employers have since launched a largely successful counteroffensive against reduced working hours.

Why are working hours rising and what can we do about it?

Some commentators blame "consumerism" and the "work and spend cycle". No doubt there are those who overwork, often in two full-time jobs, for the sake of conspicuous consumption – "to keep up with the Joneses". But the usual pattern is probably for people to work more in an effort to preserve their accustomed standard of living despite another trend of the last quarter century: the decline in real wages. Many overwork to save for their children's education or for retirement, although the overwork makes it much less likely that they'll survive to enjoy their "nest egg". And many have to overwork just to make ends meet or under pressure from their employers (e.g., compulsory overtime). Managers are especially vulnerable to such pressure: thanks to the cell phone, they can be called upon at any time and are thereby deprived of any guaranteed non-working time.

One important part of the explanation must be that it is cheaper for employers to hire a small number of employees to work long hours than it would be to divide up the available work among a larger number of employees. Many labour-related costs – training, administration, fringe benefits – depend on the number of employees, not total employee-hours. So "downsizing" is always an appealing way of quickly improving a firm's profitability and competitive position. Long hours also have the advantage of making workers more dependent on a specific employer and therefore easier to control.

So could reforms change the incentive structure for both employers and employees in favour of shorter hours? Suggestions include improving the status of part-time work, abolishing higher rates for overtime, and banning compulsory overtime. Tax incentives could be devised for spreading available work more thinly. In principle such changes might have a certain effect. But if capitalists were to come under strong pressure from a reformist government in one country to shorten hours, they would surely move their assets elsewhere, as they already do to escape unwelcome regulation of other kinds.

Historical evidence does point to a clear relationship between working time and the willingness of workers and their organizations to fight for its reduction. Reduced hours have never flowed automatically from increased productivity. They have been won though long and intense struggle. And in today's world the struggle has to be waged on a global scale – not for the "right to work" but for the right to live, which includes the right to leisure. Or, to borrow the title of a classic pamphlet by Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, the right to be lazy.