Ryan Avent reckons that our jobs have become prisons from which we don’t want to escape
When I was young, there was nothing so bad as being asked to work. Now I find it hard to conjure up that feeling, but I see it in my five-year-old daughter. “Can I please have some water, daddy?”
“You can get it yourself, you’re a big girl.”
“WHY DOES EVERYONE ALWAYS TREAT ME LIKE A MAID?”
That was me when I was young, rolling on the ground in agony on being asked to clean my room. As a child, I wonderingly observed the hours my father worked. The stoical way he went off to the job, chin held high, seemed a beautiful, heroic embrace of personal suffering. The poor man! How few hours he left himself to rest on the couch, read or watch American football.
My father had his own accounting firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. His speciality was helping people manage their tax and financial affairs as they started, expanded, or in some cases shut down their businesses. He has taken his time retiring, and I now realise how much he liked his work. I can remember the glowing terms in which his clients would tell me about the help he’d given them, as if he’d performed life-saving surgery on them. I also remember the way his voice changed when he received a call from a client when at home. Suddenly he spoke with a command and facility that I never heard at any other time, like a captive penguin released into open water, swimming in his element with natural ease.
At 37, I see my father’s routine with different eyes. I live in a terraced house in Wandsworth, a moderately smart and wildly expensive part of south-west London, and a short train ride from the headquarters of The Economist, where I write about economics. I get up at 5.30am and spend an hour or two at my desk at home. Once the children are up I join them for breakfast, then go to work as they head off to school. I can usually leave the office in time to join the family for dinner and put the children to bed. Then I can get a bit more done at home: writing, if there is a deadline looming, or reading, which is also part of the job. I work hard, doggedly, almost relentlessly. The joke, which I only now get, is that work is fun.
Not all work, of course. When my father was a boy on the family farm, the tasks he and his father did in the fields – the jobs many people still do – were gruelling and thankless. I once visited the textile mill where my grandmother worked for a time. The noise of the place was so overpowering that it was impossible to think. But my work – the work we lucky few well-paid professionals do every day, as we co-operate with talented people while solving complex, interesting problems – is fun. And I find that I can devote surprising quantities of time to it.
What is less clear to me, and to so many of my peers, is whether we should do so much of it. One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts. Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.
Work, in this context, means active, billable labour. But in reality, it rarely stops. It follows us home on our smartphones, tugging at us during an evening out or in the middle of our children’s bedtime routines. It makes permanent use of valuable cognitive space, and chooses odd hours to pace through our thoughts, shoving aside whatever might have been there before. It colonises our personal relationships and uses them for its own ends. It becomes our lives if we are not careful. It becomes us.
When John Maynard Keynes mused in 1930 that, a century hence, society might be so rich that the hours worked by each person could be cut to ten or 15 a week, he was not hallucinating, just extrapolating. The working week was shrinking fast. Average hours worked dropped from 60 at the turn of the century to 40 by the 1950s. The combination of extra time and money gave rise to an age of mass leisure, to family holidays and meals together in front of the television. There was a vision of the good life in this era. It was one in which work was largely a means to an end – the working class had become a leisured class. Households saved money to buy a house and a car, to take holidays, to finance a retirement at ease. This was the era of the three-Martini lunch: a leisurely, expense-padded midday bout of hard drinking. This was when bankers lived by the 3-6-3 rule: borrow at 3%, lend at 6%, and head off to the golf course by 3pm.The vision of a leisure-filled future occurred against the backdrop of the competition against communism, but it is a capitalist dream: one in which the productive application of technology rises steadily, until material needs can be met with just a few hours of work. It is a story of the triumph of innovation and markets, and one in which the details of a post-work world are left somewhat hazy. Keynes, in his essay on the future, reckoned that when the end of work arrived:
For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.Karl Marx had a different view: that being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work.
In those decades after the second world war, Keynes seemed to have the better of the argument. As productivity rose across the rich world, hourly wages for typical workers kept rising and hours worked per week kept falling – to the mid-30s, by the 1970s. But then something went wrong. Less-skilled workers found themselves forced to accept ever-smaller pay rises to stay in work. The bargaining power of the typical blue-collar worker eroded as technology and globalisation handed bosses a whole toolkit of ways to squeeze labour costs. At the same time, the welfare state ceased its expansion and began to retreat, swept back by governments keen to boost growth by cutting taxes and removing labour-market restrictions. The income gains that might have gone to workers, that might have kept living standards rising even as hours fell, that might have kept society on the road to the Keynesian dream, flowed instead to those at the top of the income ladder. Willingly or unwillingly, those lower down the ladder worked fewer and fewer hours. Those at the top, meanwhile, worked longer and longer.
It was not obvious that things would turn out this way. You might have thought that whereas, before, a male professional worked 50 hours a week while his wife stayed at home with the children, a couple of married professionals might instead each opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure. That didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children....MUCH MORE