Sonia Sadha has just made a programme for the BBC about working hours. And sadly she doesn’t understand, in the slightest, what working hours actually are. This is something of a problem when you’re making a programme about working hours.
There are two other reasons to reconsider the length of the working week. We already work a 32-hour week on average (pretty much a four-day week); it’s just that it’s predominantly women who work part-time. That’s because mothers are more likely than fathers to go part-time after having children because they earn less on average, further choking off their career progression. And so a 30-hour week could help close the gender pay gap by redistributing paid work from men to women, not to mention giving men more time to do some childcare and hoovering.
Hoovering and childcare are work. Not working for The Man and instead working for She Who Must Be Obeyed is still work.
The division is into four sets. Personal time, the things that other people simply cannot do for us. No one else can take our shower for us, eat for us, sleep for us. Paid work in the marketplace, out there for The Man. Unpaid household labour – clearing the gutters, keeping the kids fed and clean, growing the veg on the allotment if that’s what you do. Then there’s leisure.
Changes in what is done between those two middle groups are not reductions in working hours. Succumbing to The Man to make the money to buy a takeaway, spending the same amount of time washing and boiling the veg, they’re both work. Both subtract from that residual number, leisure.
It’s not actually that radical an idea, as I found out while making a programme on it for BBC Radio 4. The working week was once an 80-hour affair. As recently as 50 years ago, everyone assumed it would continue to get shorter; that as society became more prosperous, workers would enjoy the proceeds, not just in bigger pay cheques, but with more time off. University leisure studies departments flourished in the 60s and 70s as we supposedly stood poised to enter the age of recreation.
Failing to understand that paid and unpaid work distinction is what leads to errors like that. For we have had that explosion in leisure this past century. We really have got to Keynes’ 15 hour workweek. It’s just that it was the unpaid work in the household that declined, not the paid in the marketplace. One estimate – of whatever accuracy – actually does have it that a 1930s household required 60 hours of work a week to keep that show on the road. Today’s needs 15.
This is also as it should be of course. Market work is going to be more efficient than household. Division and specialisation of labour is what makes labour productivity rise. We get more for any one hour of labour. In a household, unless it’s very much more exciting than mine, there are only two adults who can divide and specialise. Move that task out into the marketplace and we’ve 7 billion or so to raise productivity with. As we cut labour hours it should be the most inefficient of them cut first. Those household hours.
Sadha has thus entirely missed what has been happening to work hours this past century. Leisure has expanded massively. Market working hours for men have declined a little. Those for women have risen a lot. Household working hours for men have fallen a lot, household hours for women fallen precipitately. The net effect being a significant rise in those leisure hours. It’s also the least productive hours that have been – logically and rightly – converted into leisure.
And if you’re not starting from that point then really, you’re just never going to understand working hours when you make a radio programme about it, are you?