Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Work Beats Life

It is well known that British people work the longest hours of any country in Europe. This is probably the one aspect of our lives that we allow to rob us the most of the time, energy and patience we could have with our children. This has long been the case regarding men, but it is also fast becoming true of women. To consider the severity of the situation it is worth looking at some recent figures.

 
  • Mothers with dependent children are in fact working 2.5 hours more a week compared to women without children, than they were just over a decade ago. [i]
 
  • One in every eight women now works more than 60 hours a week – double the number than only a few years previous. They are fast catching up with men, among whom the figure is one in six. [ii]
 
  • When it comes to public holidays, the UK is thirteen days behind the Europe Union average. [iii]
 
  • 61 per cent of working families now have parents away from home during early mornings, evenings, and nights. 34 per cent have a parent working at weekends. By the time this book is being read this number is expected to have doubled. [iv]
 
  • One in every five British young people says that their parents are too stressed to make time for them, a major nationwide study found. [v]
 
  • More than half of all teenage boys wish their parents would take more interest in their education. [vi]
 
  • Nearly 60% of British workers fail to use all of their annual leave. [vii]
 
  • More than three-quarters of UK employees (77%) have no element of flexibility in their employment contracts. Only a little over one in 10 work flexitime, compared with a third of workers in Germany. [viii]
 

Even many in the privileged classes of British society, who have generally been immune from a frantic life of labour, are now choosing to be part of our work-infatuated society. As Professor Jonathan Gershuny, Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research, found in a recent study, long hours of paid work are now “associated with advantaged social positions in modern societies – a complete turnaround from a hundred years ago, when high social status was demonstrated by how much time people could spend on leisure pursuits.” [ix]

 

From these pieces of evidence, a very clear picture of modern life emerges. It is one of alarmingly fragmented family life, where work beats everything else hands down – including relationships between parents and children. What makes the situation worse is that Britons aged between 30 and 49 – the very ages when active parenting of children is most needed – are now the most likely to work long hours. [x]

 

One of the 20th century’s most farsighted minds, Bertrand Russell, believed that all work was simply the moving of matter, or the supervising of it. If we update that ‘All work is simply the moving of matter and information or the supervising of it,’ then I think we have a description of work that will hold true well into this millennium.

 
So if this is really all that work is, at its essence, then why do we let it take over us to the point where every other facet of our lives revolves around it? Why do we allow it to be a cause for our children to be lost from us? Aside from the fact that work usually provides an income that prevents unemployment and possibly provides a pension for later in life, the only plausible explanation can be that it is because we attach meaning to work – so much meaning and importance that it creates a life of it’s own inside us, and for many of us it is as if our identity does not exist without it.
 

This is not generally so for people from the Pacific islands, for example. They do not feel the kind of guilt that the millions of other individuals have, owing to their concept of themselves having been formed by the Protestant work ethic. Deep down, many of us do in fact still believe that ‘the devil will find work for idle hands to do’ and that we are insignificant unless we do what is regarded as important work.

 
One father, Gerry, sees his occupation in an insightful way. He says:
 

“Children are the light of your life, as they grow up the light begins to dim because you miss their innocent dependence upon what you know is a flawed human being, but they don't, they see safety and love. If you have memories, as you get older, they are invariably about children, not your fantastic career.”

 

This kind of thinking has been confirmed in recent surveys, [xi] where over 2 million Britons have said that even if it meant a pay cut, they would like to work less. It is very easy to say we want to have more time outside the workplace, but apart from some workers who are genuinely ‘trapped,’ few of us actually make the necessary changes in our lives so that our paid labour takes less of a toll. In putting earning an income ahead of time with our children, we may be easing that part of our consciences that demands toil, and keeping mortgage payments up, but we are creating another problem altogether – a generation of kids who barely know their own mothers and fathers.

 


 
[i] “Listening to parents,” National Family and Planning Institute, in C.Donnellan, op.cit., p.18.
 
[ii] “Full-time mothers,” in Ibid., p.32.
 
[iii] Ibid, p.33.
 
[iv] “Stressed parents” in Ibid., p.19.
 
[v] Ibid.
 
 
[vi] Ibid.
 
[vii] “Why workers should give it a rest,” Guardian Unlimited: Business Insight, 15/11/05.
 
[viii] “Progress on work-life balance is a myth for many, says [Labour Force Survey] report,”
The Guardian, 17/11/2005.
 
[ix] “Busyness: a modern badge of honour,” Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) Press Release, 10/1205.
 
[x] “Working Hours In The UK: A review of the research literature, analysis of survey data and cross-national organizational case studies,” Department of Trade And Industry, June 2002
 
[xi] “Money can’t buy us love” The Independent, 08/01/06, and “Progress on work-life balance is a myth for many, says report” The Guardian, November 17/11/05.