Let’s demand less work
Andy Murray is turning shop steward. The tennis player has made headlines around the world threatening to lead a rackets down walk out if the gruelling schedule required of pro-tennis players isn’t cut. The number of games they are forced to put their bodies through a year is dangerous, we are told. And so they must work less.
It’s very easy to dismiss their protest. They are paid millions. While their work is painful, it is hardly the grinding, life endangering job of those who pick the cotton from which their glowing whites are likely sewn, or the agonising abused hours of the women who probably stitched them.
But if people as popular as the planet’s leading tennis players can remind the world that withdrawing your labour is a valid tactic, then I guess that’s useful. And perhaps more of us could learn the specific lesson: perhaps many more of us should be demanding less work.
On Monday night I went to see Compass chair Neal Lawson speak in an Islington pub. Among other things, he repeated one of his favourite questions: “would you like more time to read your kids a bed-time story?” How many people would chose to work fewer hours if they could? And how many unemployed people would desperately love to take those hours on? There is a clear imperative to raise wages to ensure that everyone has enough. But once that has been achieved, how many would choose scaling back our hours over a pay rise? How many would chose to have more time to read their children a bed time story?
As it happens, a redistribution of work was also a centre-piece of Simon Hughes’ Liberal Democrat conference speech that day: and no surprise. Liberals have been arguing that technology should deliver a shorter working week ever since Keynes imagined in the early 20th century that by the year 2000, we’d be at our jobs only 15 hours a week. As technology improved, we’d cut back. Now, I’m no liberal, but I do often think we should push this message significantly more. The reason I was able to go to the Compass talk on a week night in London (not where I live) was that I just went part time in my own job – I started to job share.
Of course, Keynes wasn’t that far off. In fact, as the excellent report from the New Economics Foundation has pointed out, the average working week in the UK today for those who want employment is 21 hours. With high unemployment and underemployment blighting so many lives, and significant over employment and late nights at the office hitting so many more, surely we should be demanding a re-distribution?
Douglas Alexander recently argued that Labour should be the party of aspiration. This is defined, he told us, by the desire for a conservatory and a wide screen TV: “Being the party of holidays, home ownership, and an HD TV is something the party’s ethical socialist tradition has struggled with”. He goes on to say: “The holiday might be the one time we get to spend the hours with our kids”. And of course he is right that Labour – and the Green Party – should be parties of aspiration. Because if we aren’t, then we will be parties of regression. But the solution to our increasingly stressed lives is surely not that we have a brighter TV screen to hypnotise us when we return home. The answer to the dwindling time people have to spend with their children is not that the annual holiday is more comfortable. And the solution to the fact that homes built under Mr Alexander’s privatised housing market are so small they would have been illegal in the 1970s is not conservatories.
Neal Lawson has another line he often repeats: ‘we are living in a utopia: but it’s not our utopia. It’s someone elses.’ If we are to build ours, we must first imagine it. And we must learn to describe it in ways that are clear to everyone, where everyone can see how their lives will be better. And then we must together struggle for it.
So, I don’t have children. But if I did, I would certainly like to have the time to read them a bedtime story. And in the mean time, I like that I can go to Islington pubs and dream. And I suspect that Andy Murray should be allowed to play less tennis.
Surly, rather than trying to free our identity from work we should be trying to free work from the constraints imposed on it by capitalism. It is capitalism which results in work being a degrading and an alienating process. Alternatively work can be hugely rewarding and a way for humans to express their natural creativity. The problem is not that humans work but that humans are forced (through wage labour) to undertake work which maximizes profit rather than being compelled by their own creativity to undertake work which is intrinsically rewarding.
Thanks guys – Alex, yes please! (assuming you were thinking of writing it for Bright Green).
Good article. I recommend reading Sharon Beder’s “Selling the Work Ethic” She goes into this a whole lot more.
Our attitude to work is so unhealthy to the extent that we define ourselves by what work we do, rather than what we are like, what we like, how we feel. We define ourselves by externally imposed structures rather than anything on a personal human level. I still haven’t worked out what ice breaker I can ask people I meet other than ‘So what do you do?’ – it says so much about us that it is almost impossible to think you know someone without knowing that fact – and the judgements we make of their character arising from that.
I often think our minds must be psychically connected this is very close to some thoughts I’ve been having since reading the chapter ‘Use-value, Exchange value and Contemporary Capitalism in G.A Cohen’s ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History’. I’m actually intending to write a blog on it tomorrow.
Cohen argues that the want and need (due to environmental damage (amazingly as the book was published in 1978)) to reduce unpleasant employment provides the very rational for replacing capitalism.
Capitalism emphasizes exchange value and ignores use-value and competition means that any improvement in efficiency will result in expanding production (if the market can absorb the increased commodities) or if there is no market for more of the commodity then the laying off workers and corresponding devaluing of labour due to increase supply of labour in the labour market.
This means that while capitalism maybe more efficient than socialism in terms of increasing exchange-value (as measured by GDP) it is far less efficient at increasing use-vale (the real value of things, including work to people) and therefore capitalism is a fetter to the material advancement of the human race and thus rationally needs to be replaced.
He explains it in these clips
This kind of wholesale shift in priorities (from an emphasis on paid work to one that valued other kinds of ‘work’) would do a lot for gender equality too.
Great article. Our lives have become so stressed, so frantic, so hurried, that many people have completely forgotten how to relax, or that life doesn’t revolve around work. Generations are now coming of age who have been taught that they must enter a frenzied existence of work-sleep-work-sleep to be successful, or else they will be a failure. This is incredibly bad for our mental health, and this is beginning to manifest itself in practically everyone to some degree.
Not to mention the fact that stress, overworking and the resulting physical and mental health pressures must be costing the economy immeasurable amounts of money..