Are we working too much or just whingeing more?
If you’re reading this consider yourself lucky. You’ve managed to find time out of a stressful work day to squeeze in a moment of media consumption despite a new study finding we’re all working way too hard and far too much.
The Australian Institute survey Long time, no see will no doubt provoke a round of handwringing from social researchers using it as proof that Australia is slave to a brutal corporate beast that eats up families and destroys “community”. This will be accompanied by calls to move toward a more European model of work, replete with biweekly cheese fairs in our new found tight knit villages.
The glaring problems with this survey and others like it are not the results, but the fact that there’s no recognition of the gap between what people say they want, what they actually want and what they’re willing to do about it.
Taken at face value the survey has some pretty startling findings:
Actual working hours match preferred working hours for just one in five workers (21 per cent). Half of all workers (50 per cent), and 81 per cent of those working more than 40 hours a week, would like to work fewer hours than they worked in the past week. A further 29 per cent of workers would like to work additional hours, including the majority of those working part time (60 per cent).
It goes on to make the mass diagnosis of time poverty upon our lives:
Time poverty refers to not having enough time to do all the things you want or need to do. Not everyone faces the same time commitments or has the same access to free time. Like a shortage of income, lack of free time may be another aspect of disadvantage in societies.
To reverse the analogy of time and money: does this mean that if I don’t have the money to buy all the things I want and need I’m suffering from financial poverty? Because if that’s the case I wasn’t aware that my inability to recreate a boyhood fantasy of owning a Delorean and a hover board was classified as poverty.
In casually conflating “want and need” to define time poverty, there’s a deceptive assumption that the hours we want to work are equal to those we actually need to work to support the lives we’ve become accustomed to. Furthermore, there’s little evidence that those working the hardest are looking to change.
The survey finds that we’re working on average 35.6 hours a week (that’s 7.12 hours a day) with a median working week of 40 hours, with men working about seven hours more a week than women. Those who work more than 40 hours a week overwhelmingly want to work less (81 per cent), and those who worked less than 35 hours want to work more (60 per cent). So part time workers want to work more and those who work a lot want to work less.
Those who expressed the greatest dissatisfaction between the hours they are working and those they want to are male, manager professionals, between the ages of 35-54 who earn over $80,000 - unsurprisingly this group also works the longest hours. So men who work the most and earn the most feel that they are working too hard.
But this is also the group with the greatest earning power, and there’s no evidence that they’re turning down that potential. The survey points out that people were asked to take “into account the effect on their income” when nominating preferred working hours, but doesn’t ask how much effect on their income.
The kinds of jobs the most dissatisfied people are in – skilled and educated manager professionals – generally aren’t the type that you can just cash in hours for labour lost: big job, big hours, big pay. Perhaps the better question to ask would’ve been are you willing to take a demotion to work less hours. Is it really surprising that those who are the most qualified and highest paid feel that they’re working too hard?
This is more an exercise in fantasy than it is a monumental shift in our attitude towards work and life. The majority of those who work between 35 and 40 hours who are unhappy currently say they’d happily work 8-16 hours less a week, putting them at part time hours. But saying you’d go part time and affording it (if it is even available) are two very different things.
The Institute’s paper goes on to nominate the ingenious solution of taking all those unhappy workers’ hours and handing them over to those people that want more work:
“If all 11.3 million employed people were able to work their preferred hours, there would be 28.7 million fewer hours worked each week (using the average reduction of 2.54 hours). If employers sought to employers sought to employ others to make up those lost hours, they would be looking for 886,000 new workers, given an average working week of 32.4 hours.”
So when BHP chief executive Marius Kloppers announces he’ll be taking every second Friday off we’ll have Claire from accounts willing to fill in because she needs the extra hours. This is the “lump of labour” fallacy that the French fell for with the legislated 35 hour work week.
Unfortunately the institute paper goes on to advocate the legislated French 35 hour week, pointing to falling unemployment and increased GDP after the legislative change by the Socialist Party Prime Minister Jospin in 2000. It fails to mention that this was at the expense of tens of billions of Euro to the Government, unemployment then steadily grew in France and that the French Government has now (almost) scrapped the law. And while we’re being all “net happiness” about it, one might also point out that France has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and it’s something the 35 hour week didn’t help.
It’s worth considering whether we work too much and what it’s doing to our lives, especially to vulnerable people like carers. But it also helps if we can discern time poverty from something as reliable as the Australian work ethic – whingeing.
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