The decline and fall of the "work-life balance"

For centuries, we have been figuring out ways to increase our leisure time. Though we are far from a holidaying utopia, we have unions to thank for the little freedom we now enjoy.

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Jethro Tull had heart trouble. Born into Berkshire gentry in 1674, Tull was trained for a career in law but withdrew from the profession when his health declined and he travelled across the Continent in search of a cure.

While in Italy and France, he observed farmers’ practices there and returned home inspired, eager to push British agriculture further through the application of science. In 1701, he developed a horse-drawn drill that planted seeds in orderly rows. It was a significant development in the mechanisation of crop cultivation, increasing efficiency and, in theory, reducing labour time.

Such innovations were expected to make life easier for us all: technology would eventually render work a diminished burden. But, as Bertrand Russell pointed out in 1932, while it has “given us the possibility of ease and security . . . we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others”.

A couple of years earlier, John Maynard Keynes had fantasised about how a “15-hour week” could be a possibility for his grandchildren’s generation.

We now work, on average, about 43 hours a week in the UK – more than the European average of 41.6.

The phrase “work-life balance” suggests that work isn’t life at all but most of us spend much of our time trying to earn our keep. And if that part of our day is bearable, we largely have the unions to thank: in the past century, they successfully agitated for the eight-hour day, paid sick leave, the end to discrimination, and so on.

Justifying the Tube strike, the TSSA union said it had rejected the terms offered by London Underground partly on the grounds of their effect on its members’ work-life balance.

Media coverage has fixated on the strike’s inevitable disruption of commuters’ journeys (“London Faces More Travel Misery” moans Sky News) but surely it’s about time that someone raised this particular alarm: work is swallowing up our lives.

Russell envisioned a future of enriching “idleness” – not more unemployment, but more leisure time. Though we work four hours per week less than in 1930, we are still a long way off from the holidaying utopia imagined by Keynes.

What went wrong?

The trend towards long hours has been attributed to rising wage inequality, a situation that itself has slowed the closing of the gender pay gap. A better-managed economy would result in fewer working hours: in 2012, Greeks worked 600 hours more than Germans did, but the latter had a 70 per cent higher rate of productivity.

Since the Seventies, Americans have worked more than their European counterparts; in the early 2000s, they were at work for 50 per cent longer than the Germans, the French and the Italians. US inequality is higher than that of any of those countries.

Keynes imagined that within a century the “economic problem” would be solved – but this happy scenario would be governed by:

Our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption.

Ah. Our current global economics probably doesn’t permit any of this. We have failed to control our population; we have pursued, not avoided, war; we have often ignored science, be it in terms of the global climate or in economics; we have readily uncoupled production and consumption in our craving for the quick fix of credit or cash or power.

Keynes was right but his rightness can only have a real effect in a rational world. To him, the “love of money as a possession” amounted to a “somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease”. Tell that to a short-seller.

We can’t expect an immediate technological solution to our work-congested lives, nor can we expect reason to untangle overnight the kinks of an economy skewed to further inequality and perpetual growth.

But we can at least support any organised resistance to the further encroachment of what comes after the hyphen in “work-life balance”. It’s the more important half. I hope that the Tube strikers’ demands are heard – and met.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now