Working hours – the worm turns
Ross Gittins latest column says
the great epidemic of overwork is subsiding. Of late, we’re working less, not more. And, in any case, the latest research suggests the whole story’s been a bit overdone.
The first point is, I think correct. Gittins quotes ABS data to show that average working hours for full-time employees increased from 42 to 45 hours a week between 1982 and 1994, levelled out, and have declined slightly over the past two years.
This seems pretty much consistent with the anecdotal evidence. Concern about increasing working hours started in the early 1990s and was widespread by the mid-1990s. There was a clear cultural shift around this time – people who willingly worked very long hours, who had typically been presented in very positive terms in the 1980s were presented much more negatively. A particular turning point was the publication of an email sent out at 10pm by a partner in a law firm complaining that no-one else was working. He was held up to universal ridicule. And increasingly, people decided the game wasn’t worth the candle and pulled out of full-time work altogether. Clive Hamilton’s “downshifters” are part of this response. So the decline in working hours is basically an illustration of Stein’ Law “If a trend is unsustainable, it won’t be sustained” I’ve been pointing out the unsustainability of the push to longer worker hours and greater work intensity for quite a few years (PDF file), so I’m not surprised to see a turnaround.
On the other hand, I don’t agree with the claim that “the whole story’s a bit overdone”. It’s important to observe that the rise in fulltime working hours was a reversal of a trend that had continued for more than a century. It was accompanied by a substantial increase in job stress and job insecurity, and these things were needed to induce workers to put in longer hours. Gittins makes the point that a lot of unpaid overtime was “compensated” by salary packages, but the shift towards such packages in the 1980s was precisely one of the devices used to extract more work effort, along with the conversion of employees into supposedly self-employed “contractors”.
Gittins also quotes data on the relatively small proportion of employees who said they would rather work less hours for less money, but doesn’t mention the large proportion of those on long hours who said they wanted to work less hours for the same money (12.4 per cent of those working 49-59 hours and 21 per cent of those working 60+ hours). This response “was not a preference option, [but] interviewers recorded this response when it was given. ” You might say this is simple wishful thinking, but very few people working part-time or standard full-time hours gave this spontaneous response. I’d interpret it as the response of people who feel that they’ve been pressured into working excessive hours for no extra compensation.