Books: Work is a means to an end in pursuit of the good life

This polemical book argues against the culture of toiling for ever-longer hours, but the critical issue, says John Knell, is the quality of work rather than the quantity.

by John Knell, director of the Intelligence Agency and was previously director of research and advocacy at the Work Foundation
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Willing Slaves - How the overwork culture is ruling our lives; Madeleine Bunting; HarperCollins £12.99; MT price £9.99

As an accomplished journalist, Madeleine Bunting knows not to bury the lead of her story.

Indeed, the subtitle is an excellent summary of the pages to follow.

Her thesis is that rising working hours, along with increased intensity of work among white-collar workers - especially women - drain people of the time and energy to make successful relationships with their children, partners and friends.

Bunting is unashamedly polemical: phrases such as 'our jobs are making us ill'; 'women (are) stretched, as if on a rack, between the office and home' pepper the prose. At one point she says: 'This book is not a diatribe against work', but the other 351 pages rather belie that claim.

As a polemic, the book highlights the evidence for the argument and downplays contradictions. Bunting's analysis focuses on the increased hours of full-time workers, but doesn't point out that average weekly hours have remained largely flat because of the rise in part-time jobs.

She treats the literature on stress too uncritically, given the doubtful basis of many of the surveys cited. Ellen Galinsky's work, which shows that children are much less worried by their parents' working hours than by their moods and attitude, is cited, but the implications are ignored.

And Bunting forgets that job satisfaction in the UK is high, especially among women.

The book is enlivened by plenty of real stories, many collected through Guardian advertisements and websites, which lend support to her argument.

Asking Guardian readers to complain about their work is a little like asking members of Friends of the Earth for their views on George Bush's environmental policy.

The book reveals an ambivalent attitude towards managers. On one hand, they are the hardest hit by the overwork culture: 'The problem is worst at the upper levels of the labour market, where 40% of managers work more than 50 hours a week.' On the other, they are the perpetrators: 'What managers have sought to do over the last two decades is to whittle away all "unproductive" time.' Bunting wants clear victims and villains, but ends up casting managers as both.

None of this is really a complaint. It is the nature of publishing that a good rant will sell more books than a sober, balanced argument. And it is useful to have an elegant synthesis of the overwork case. The frustration is that Bunting merely dips her toes into some genuinely interesting areas, not least the degree to which working hours are chosen. If three-quarters of those working 48 hours a week or more do so out of choice, as she says, this raises difficult questions about the right of the state to remove this freedom. And if people choose to overwork, the big question is why?

The passages on consumption suggest part of the answer. One of the reasons that already affluent couples ratchet up the hours is, as Bunting points out, to buy the second home, bigger car and smarter clothes in order to better position themselves on the consumption-dictated status hierarchy.

But if this is true, work is not the enemy - merely the means to the consumerist end.

Bunting is similarly powerful on her chapter on the 'care deficit' - in particular, on how the entry of women into the world of paid work has left a care gap in society. She argues that feminism took a wrong turn into male and market-dominated notions of progress and success. Citing US economist Shirley Burgraff, Bunting correctly detects 'the outlines of a crisis - a disinvestment by women and an under-investment by men in the care economy'.

Where the analysis falls short is its failure to connect the diagnosis of rampant consumerism with the opening up of a care deficit, other than through work. Bunting suggests many women have been forced into the labour market by economic circumstance, but this doesn't square with her correct interpretation of the data showing that it is women in well-off households who work the longest hours.

Bunting touches on the possibilities of a new politics of well-being.

The related issues of consumerism, an individualised notion of the self, gender roles, the dilution of care and the political challenges of creating the conditions for good lives form the critical questions. A book that tackles these issues is one that you sense Bunting really wanted to write - a book in which work might have taken up just one chapter.

The critical issue will be the quality of work, not its quantity. Ironically, by obsessively pursuing the issue of working hours, Bunting engages in the kind of quantification of a problem that bedevils so much of the market economics that she opposes. The role of work in the 'good life' that she urges us towards is less about the timed boundaries of work and more about the nature of what is contained within them.

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