The daily grind
Willing Slaves: how the overwork culture is ruling our lives
Madeleine Bunting HarperCollins,
What is happening to work in the UK? The question is important. The typical person spends more time undertaking paid work than on any other activity, making the nature and quality of work a critical measure of well-being. And with the government semi-obsessed with employment - not least through the combined carrots and sticks of the New Deal - any exploration of the real experience of working life is timely.
But those looking for a balanced examination of workplace trends will be disappointed by Madeleine Bunting's book. On the first page, Bunting declares her theme to be "the sheer invasive dominance of work in people's lives, and the price it exacts on their health and happiness". Her thesis - which the book's subtitle captures well - is that paid work is claiming too much of our time, energy and attention, to the detriment of family life, physical health and happiness.
Bunting marshals the evidence in support of this with Taylorian efficiency. As befits a polemic, all the counter-evidence is either ignored or skated over. She informs us that full-time working hours have increased over the past two decades. (True, but part-time work, too, has risen.) A quarter of those working long hours "do so reluctantly". (True, but three-quarters do not.) Surveys show that an "increasing number of people want to trade pay for time". (True, but many don't.) There is some evidence that people working long hours have a less satisfactory sex life. (True, but can we really trust such surveys? Besides, there is equally good evidence showing that it is those people who work zero hours - that is to say, the unemployed - who have the least sex of all.)
The boring truth is that people work hours that others define as "long" for a variety of reasons, some of which (economic necessity, peer pressure or job insecurity) are negative, and others of which (a desire to develop, enjoyment, a sense of achievement) are not. None of this complexity emerges from Bunting's narrative. She draws heavily on research by Francis Green, suggesting that work today is more intensive than it used to be, but largely ignores that of Jonathan Gershuny showing that, for many "long hours workers", time in the workplace has acquired some of the characteristics of leisure. Cary Cooper, who believes we are in the throes of a "stress epidemic", is quoted extensively, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who found people were happier at work than at home, is conspicuous by his absence.
So who is to blame for the "overwork culture"? At various points, Bunting holds managers, organisations, the government and even a non-specific "work ethic" responsible. She wants a world of villains and victims, but then struggles to cast the roles. Are senior managers, who work the longest hours but also run the organisations that Bunting attacks, the perpetrators or the victims?
In the absence of any clearly defined enemies, Bunting opts for the easier route of depersonalising the issue and blaming institutions. But this obliges her to invest organisations with dark powers. We learn that the "psychology of exploitation is devious and pervasive in our culture, and . . . insinuates its tentacles into the circumstances of even the most privileged", resulting in a "form of corporate neo-paternalism which binds the employee ever tighter into a suffocating embrace". According to this quasi-Marxist view, "clever corporations . . . reach into the interstices of our characters and even our souls, and manipulate them to their own interests". Whenever the corporation appears in Bunting's story, it does so wearing a top hat and accompanied by scary organ music. (Actually, if British bosses were half as devious and manipulative as she believes, our productivity would be much higher.)
Karl Marx is one of Bunting's preferred analysts. She misunderstands him, however. Recounting various historical predictions of the leisure age, she says that "Marx dreamt of society reaching a point where people could spend the morning thinking and the afternoon fishing". This is a misreading. The full quotation - from The German Ideology by Marx and Friedrich Engels - is that, under communism, "I may hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic".
Marx was not against work. He was opposed to the division of labour, which meant that people were defined by their position in relation to the means of production. The hunting, fishing, cattle- rearing and criticism he mentions are all work: the point is that people are free to choose their own divisions of labour, rather than have these decided for them. "Really free working", as Marx elaborated in Grundrisse, is work undertaken for its own sake, free from "external urgencies" such as economic scarcity or the desire for social advancement.
Bunting's misreading of Marx might matter only to a small band of scholars, but it highlights a basic weakness in her argument. Real progress will surely come not from people working less, but from work being freed from the exigencies of capitalist disciplines. A progressive politics of work is not about less, but better, work.
Naturally, it is unfair to judge a polemic by the same standards as an academic treatise. The whole purpose of a polemic is to issue a clarion call, rally the troops, create the energy for change. And Bunting does not pull her punches: references to work "making us ill", loyalty having been "written out of the script", and the "stagflation of Middle England" are all good, knockabout stuff. But she cannot decide where to fire her arrows, and so ends up aiming at multiple targets. She has a useful chapter on the disinvestment in childcare resulting from the mass entry of women into the labour force, and an even better one on the grip of consumerism. But blaming work for these trends is like shooting the messenger. If one of the principal reasons people work so hard is to make the money to buy stuff - which is a plausible thesis - then it is society's obsession with consumption-derived indicators of success and status that is the problem, not work.
Bunting touches intelligently on several important issues, but such nuggets are lost in her angry tirade. Ultimately, Willing Slaves falls short even as a polemic. Bunting's passion is too unfocused. Hers is a diffuse anger, directed at the world and its works, generating large amounts of heat, but little light.
Richard Reeves is the director of Intelligence Agency