UK: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LEISURE?

UK: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LEISURE? - Technology was going to shorten working hours and leave more time for leisure and a satisfying style of life. Where did it all go wrong?

by Anita van de Vliet.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Technology was going to shorten working hours and leave more time for leisure and a satisfying style of life. Where did it all go wrong?

British managers now work the longest hours in Europe (though not, it should be said, as long as their US counterparts, or, looking to the east, the Japanese and Koreans). According to a survey in Personnel Today, one in eight UK managers currently clocks up over 60 hours a week, while 40% work over 50 hours. The Institute of Personnel and Develoment, meanwhile, reports that one in five middle managers takes work home three or more times a week, with one third of junior managers regularly taking it home at weekends.

Even when they don't take work home in the form of file or disk, managers find that the boundaries between work and so-called private life are blurring.

For many, the assumption these days is that they are always on call, even when on holiday or (recalls one manager) halfway up Mt Snowdon, brought down to earth from the quest for the sublime by the trill not of the skylark but of the mobile phone. For some, exhaustion of mind and body is such that leisure time has to be devoted to rest; luxurious health spas, formerly the preserve of beauty-conscious lovelies, are now packed with top business people seeking a battery recharge to enable them to keep up the pace.

All this is a long way from earlier expectations that we were moving towards a leisure society, where technology and increased productivity would provide enough to satisfy all our material needs, where work could accordingly be shared out and hours shortened, and where labour would be only one element in a balanced and satisfying life.

How and why did our expectations - or the expectations others have of us - change? First, cast your mind back, if you can, to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Without painting too roseate a picture of those days, it is clear that, for many, the managerial routine was less than arduous. One bank manager, for example, encountering a customer on the railway platform around that time, explained his dramatic weight loss as the result of his being on holiday over the previous two weeks - and hence unable to partake of the copious and alcohol-suffused lunches which were a normal feature of his working life.

In the City, meanwhile, the Stock Exchange opened at 10am and the weekend started at midday on Fridays.

Of course, not everyone moved at a leisurely pace. Then as now, there were high-fliers driven by ambition, who worked long hours voluntarily.

But for most people, work was simply a job, and for those who chose to push themselves, it was at least a choice, suggests Carole Pemberton, research consultant at Sundridge Park Management Centre. 'In the '60s, people worked hard to get on. Now, they have to work hard just to stay in,' she says. Hard work was underpinned by the assumption that you were investing your time for the long term: you 'served' time and felt secure, because you knew you would be rewarded.

Pemberton refers us to the banks' recruitment literature in the 1960s to illustrate her point. The word 'business' does not appear, she observes.

Instead, potential recruits were being invited to become 'officers' of the organisation which offered them membership of social and holiday clubs, 2% mortgages and convalescent homes. Would-be employees were being taken into a family, assured of their status and of their place in the pecking order. Do not ask what you can do for the company, such literature seemed to be saying, ask rather what it can do to look after you. Compare that option with today's 'psychological contract', when staff, writes Pemberton, are often expected to offer 'longer hours, harder work, broader skills and tolerance of change, in exchange for high pay and the privilege of having a job at all'.

One obvious feature of business life in the 1960s was that both manufacturing and the service industries were serving less demanding mass markets, and the primacy of the consumer had yet to be established. Nor was there much competition from low-cost manufacturers on far flung continents. Life was simpler for the technological specialists, too. Consider Bob Jones, last year's winner of the Venturer of the Year award and the founder of three highly successful electronics companies (most recently, Sonix Communications, which he sold to 3Com Corporation for £45 million last year, and where he still serves as managing director). A self-confessed workaholic, Jones has probably put in a 12-hour day throughout his working life. But he sees a marked difference between his working life back in the early 1970s at Racal Milgo and then at Swiss company Borer, and his current activities at Sonix. 'The pace of life in this company is significantly faster than in the industry 25 years ago,' he comments. 'I work harder - and I'm getting older, so I shouldn't be.' The data communications market has become vastly more complex and demanding, he elaborates, with products which were considered leading-edge technology in the 1970s and sold therefore to select, worldwide customers such as banks and airlines in high-cost, high-value contracts, becoming commonplace. 'Profit margins were so much easier then,' he laments.

Ironically, of course, the advances in Jones's own data communications industry have been partly responsible for the intensification of working life since the 1960s and 1970s. Managers recall with nostalgia the old pre-fax days, when you could claim that a letter hadn't arrived and expect to be believed; when travel abroad meant that you were out of reach of head office; when it was recognised that a phonecall from Italy counted as a major adventure, not to be undertaken lightly, and one from India, say, would have counted as a minor miracle.

'It used to be assumed you were out of contact when you were abroad,' remembers Courtaulds chief executive Sipko Huismans, adding that you were treated effectively as an ambassador when overseas, left to make decisions for yourself. Whereas today video-conferencing with a subsidiary in California, say, might keep British managers at the office until midnight, 20 years ago time differences across continents were real, and filing reports could safely be left to the morrow or until your return.

But advances in technology are only one factor in the changing work scene.

The oil shock of 1973-4 was another: when OPEC announced a 70% increase in the oil price (and western Europe, it should be remembered, depended on Arab producers for 80% of its oil), the long post-war boom drew to a close.

'The oil crisis marked the beginning of the end,' comments John Philpott of the Employment Policy Institute.' The new world realities evidently impinged upon some industries sooner than others - Huismans recalls for his part the 'roller-coaster' inflation of the period (up to 26% in July 1975) and the havoc that this wrought in terms of commodity pricing and long-term contracts.

For other industries, it seems that the new reality only dawned with the second shock of the decade - the Thatcher government of 1979. Unlike her predecessor Jim Callaghan, who had warned that this time the British could not 'spend their way out of recession' but had lacked the zeal to push this insight to its logical but harsh conclusion,Thatcher tacitly accepted that unemployment was a price worth paying to bring down inflation. 'People in the labour market were used to operating in a seller's market,' comments Philpott. 'Now a lot were struggling to get jobs at all, and those in work were prepared to work harder to keep theirs.' Trade unions were a dwindling species. Thus it was that in the early 1980s the steady decline in the average working week which had begun in the mid-1960s came to a halt; and from the mid-1980s, hours started to creep up again. By 1992 the average working week of 43.4 hours was an hour longer than in 1983, while the proportions of both men and women working over 48 hours rose, from 22% to 28% in the case of the male workforce and from 6% to 9% in the case of female workers.

The effect of the Thatcherite policy of deregulation and liberalisation was also having its effect, most markedly, perhaps, in the City. One of the first acts of the new government in 1979 was the lifting of exchange controls, freeing up international capital movement and perforce opening up the City to international hours to meet the demands of foreign customers.

Eric de Bellaigue, formerly media analyst at Panmure Gordon (now happily retired), explains: 'A Frenchman, for example, wanting to deal in UK equities at 9am his time (8am here) would not want to wait until the UK stock market opened at 10am'. In 1986, accordingly, the Stock Exchange brought forward the official start of trading to 8.30am. But that was not all, de Bellaigue points out, since company results posted on computer screens from 7.30am required analysts to be present and correct, ready to convert these raw results into considered judgment for the morning meeting at 8am (the start of a slightly more leisurely day for the sales people). Those living in leafy dells in the country, as City folk were wont to do, therefore found themselves leaving home at 5.30am (and leaving the City only at 6.30pm).Train timetables bear witness to the changes. In 1972 the earliest train for commuters from Winchester, for example, was the 6.36 arriving in London at 7.59am. By 1986 the first departure was an hour earlier.

What is more, says de Bellaigue, these long hours were not a macho display of staying power but were genuinely needed for the increased work. Certainly, the very large salaries now on offer played their part: 'You're caught, by being heavily remunerated.' A top analyst, earning, say, £150,000 to £200,000 a year, had to accept that work was his or her life (regrettably, says de Bellaigue, the advent of women in the City, though welcome in other respects, only added to the culture of conscientiousness), and that preparing reports over the weekend was part of the bargain. In addition, the greater job insecurity translated into a desire to win the hearts of institutional clients so that in the unfortunate event of your being earmarked for redundancy, you were equipped to present yourself at the door of another employe. As an analyst, for instance, this meant proving your worth in terms of the quality of your research. Crucially, standards of professionalism in the City rose over the decade, with detailed research to validate investment decisions now required from fund managers instead of the hunches and wheezes of yore.

Companies, meanwhile, now felt it their responsibility to keep in touch with their institutional shareholders, which again increased the workload all round.

This increased professionalism permeated the wider corporate scene through the 1980s and business life in the 1990s has certainly not become more relaxed. 'The financial markets have become much more sophisticated in judging shareholder value,' comments Laura Stein of HR consultants Kinsley Lord, and this in turn has had its impact on companies. 'There is much more focus now on what makes a business successful,' she says. Restructuring, redundancies, merging, demerging - all these played their part in piling on the work through the 1980s, whether through reducing the number of people required to do the same volume of work or through injecting a new profit-driven mentality into the business, as in publishing, for example. Paula Kahn, former chairman and chief executive of Longmans educational publishers (part of the Pearson group), describes the change in her working environment. 'Long hours were always part of the positive aspect of publishing: people were very committed and loved it, they generated work themselves and stayed till all hours to get it done. But publishing is an entirely people-intensive industry; and as publishers were bought up (often at vastly inflated prices, one might add) by companies concerned with their profit potential, long hours became consolidated into the culture. Long hours became a factor in the promotion stakes.'

Re-engineering 1990s-style has further bumped up the workload of those who remain on the payroll. As Gareth Rees, Kinsley Lord chief executive, points out, 'We've always had re-engineering. What's different now is that we are re-engineering the management process as such.' Unlike earlier cutbacks, which might have seen numbers shaved by 2% at all levels of the organisation, the past five or six years have seen whole layers of managers disappear. Information technology now makes it possible for senior managers to have twice the number of people reporting to them, by using computers for planning, setting objectives and updating. Thus, in Bob Jones's experience, managers who formerly dealt with four people now cope with eight. But managing people can be stressful, technology not-withstanding.

Indeed, according to Nick Winkfield, managing director of SocioConsult and a partner in MORI, a 1994 study showed that 65% of jobs involved managing people, but that when respondents were asked to describe their ideal job, this proportion fell to 39%.

It could be that, despite all the uplifting talk about the benefits of delayering and empowerment, many people actually felt more comfortable in the old hierarchical structures. But Peter Herriot of the Institute for Employment Studies emphasises a different aspect to explain the current sense of overload and resentment. 'There is something in American and British cultures through which the HR management exacerbates the obvious effects of restructuring,' he suggests. 'In Anglo-Saxon countries we view the individual as the capital of an organisation, as an asset to manipulate.' He cites such techniques as performance-related pay to back up his argument and suggests, 'We should be enlisting employees' help and valuing them, rather than seeking to pull motivational strings'.

So where do we stand, 30 years on? According to Geoff Mulgan and Helen Wilkinson, writing in The Time Squeeze (the October 1995 quarterly from the Demos think-tank), the 'elite' are working ever harder and longer, since the 'interpersonal skills, networks of contacts and trust' demanded by their jobs are not easily transferable. 'With these types of work, three workers working 50 hours each week are much more efficient than five workers working 30-hour weeks.' At the bottom end, so-called flexibility is also 'more often imposed than sought - with the important difference that rewards are declining rather rising'. And at the middle levels, even though there is as yet little evidence of either longer hours or shorter tenure, people are feeling harried.

What is to be done? 'Down-shifting' - changing down a gear or two in terms of career and income aspirations in pursuit of a better quality of life - has become a voguish concept in the US, but it remains to be seen whether it will be translated into action, in that country or in this. Meanwhile, employees could take a more modest step towards a balanced existence by obeying the call of the Long Hours Campaign (launched by the Parents At Work group last September) to 'Go Home On Time!' on 21 June, the longest day of the year. Get a life!

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