Whatever happened to the leisure society?

According to a new report, society would benefit if the working week was reduced to 21 hours, writes Eddie Ford. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees

In the 1950s we were promised that the ‘leisure society’ was just round the corner. Full of the spirit of official optimism, assorted sociologists, economists, futurologists, etc confidently told us that the relentless march of technology and progress would inevitably lead to a decrease in the working day. In particular, there would be such an explosion in technology and productivity that a whole new army of revolutionary domestic gadgets and appliances would free us up to spend vastly more time engaging in relaxing and unstressful activities (like shopping and watching television). There would even be robots to do the cleaning for us and maybe holidays on the moon.

Never trust a futurologist. Not only did this chrome-plated, automated paradise fail to materialise (what a surprise); in fact, quite the reverse is true in contemporary reality. We now work longer hours than 30 years ago in those far-off, seemingly halcyon, social democratic days.

Simultaneously, under the impact of the current ‘credit crunch’ and global financial crisis, growing numbers of people have been made part of the ‘leisurised’ poor - so the official unemployment statistics show that 2.46 million people (7.8%) in the UK are unemployed, while in the United States it officially now stands at 14.8 million (9.7%). Needless to say, very few of those cast into the social dustbin, especially in the US, feel so joyous about the ‘free’ time they suddenly have at their disposal that they set about fulfilling their lifelong desire to read the complete works of Marcel Proust or master pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. Rather they suffer the perpetual, pressing misery of how to pay the rent/mortgage at the end of the month and put food on the table.

So, yes, a century ago people in the UK on average worked more than 50 hours each week. Of course, relatively few women were in the labour market in those days - hence the average was essentially a reflection of how long men, an actual minority of the population, were working. But when married women started to stay in the labour market, as a norm, the length of the average working week fell to around 35 hours by the end of the 1970s - reflecting a combination of trade union strength and the growth of working part-time - the latter mainly involving women who thereby carried a dual burden, being primarily responsible for domestic labour.

However, this downward trend in working hours came to a screeching halt in the 1980s - with the turn to Thatcherite financialisation and the reversal of the social democratic settlement. In a part reflection of this major economic-structural shift in UK society, there was an increase in the type and number of occupations where long hours tend to be normalised - most notably, self-employment and various managerial and professional jobs. Indeed, even some of our readers may well be personally aware that the self-employed - the self-exploited - often work much longer hours, and under far more stressful and precarious working conditions, than wage labourers.

Consequently, as sketched above, the average working week lengthened again in the last decades of the 20th century - with two-adult households adding six hours a week to their combined paid workload. Therefore, according to the office for national statistics, as of December 2008, full-time workers averaged 37 hours a week, while part-time workers averaged 15.5 hours - though this section of the workforce are also working longer hours than they were in the mid-1990s. And, of course, very many of the nearly one million who worked part-time do so just because they could not secure a full-time job. They did so not because it suited their economic needs or wants, but rather that of their employers: ‘flexibility’ indeed - for the bosses. As for those working the longest hours in the UK, according to an independent study into working hours commissioned by the department for business, innovation and skills, these are usually men aged 30-49 with children and employed in the private sector.

Naturally, as is always the case with statistics - which can sometimes point to the truth as well as promoting damned lies - averages can disguise the total picture. So just over a fifth of people in employment (six million or 20.1%) work more than 45 hours a week, a distinctly high proportion by European Union standards - even if the UK has not quite yet caught up with the United States or Japan. The ‘long hours culture’ now predominant in the UK is demonstrated by the fact that of those six million workers, four million work longer than 48 hours - thus violating the European Working Time Directive. Even worse, one in every six of them is working over 60 hours a week - compared to just one in eight in 2000.

To further compound the picture of overwork, British workers put in 36 million hours of free overtime each year - amounting to a staggering £23 billion in money terms - with one in three not taking all their holidays due to a dread of the backlog of work they will find upon return. Moreover, in total, UK workers spend 21.8 million hours travelling to and from work every day, and only one in three people with jobs actually know that the law - the “Brussels bureaucracy” the tabloids tell us to hate - protects them against working more than 48 hours a week. And one in four who signed the opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive said they were given no choice by their bosses about signing away their rights and a good chunk of their life.[1]

Unsurprisingly then, a 2003 survey conducted by the Samaritans - entitled Stressed out - discovered that 36% of people cited their jobs as the “single biggest cause of stress” in their lives. Furthermore, a recent poll by the Monster website showed that 37% thought that work “gets in the way of their relationships” - and another 23% felt they are expected, compelled, to put their work “ahead of their home life”.[2] So much for the precious - and increasingly mythical - ‘work-life balance’ we have heard so much about over the years, especially from government ministers.


Against this gloomy backdrop of overwork and stressed-out workers, in steps the New Economics Foundation and its report published on February 13 calling for a 21-hour week. Entitled 21 hours - why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century, the authors of the NEF study declare that their proposition is “intended as a provocation” - in order to “stimulate debate and ideas”. The NEF was set up in 1986 by prominent members of the US-based Other Economic Summit, seeking to promote “economics which incorporate the sustainable use of natural resources” and the “productive engagement of all people in the development of their communities and societies”.[3]

Similarly, the NEF works towards a “new model of wealth creation, based on equality, diversity and economic stability” - its central slogan being: “Economics as if people and the planet mattered”.[4] Historically, the NEF has championed the idea of “time banks” and helped to advance studies on “sustainability indicators” - which tracks and measures all aspects of life and the environment, emphasising the inseparable connection between “economic growth” and ecological sustainability (or not).

To that end, it published a sister report to 21 hours on January 25, called Growth isn’t possible - which argued, quite correctly, that there are no “magic bullets” when it comes to protecting the environment. That is, no technological quick fixes or quackery will ‘save the planet’, let alone any supposed solution posited on the continuation of the current patterns of work/labour and production in general: the ‘work-planet imbalance’.[5]

In 21 hours we read that if we want to tackle overconsumption, rising unemployment, increasing inequality and the deteriorating ‘work-life balance’ - and as a bonus defuse the pensions time bomb by ensuring employees are healthy enough to work later in life - then we need to radically alter our working lives: indeed, transform the way we (dis)organise work and productive activity. So the NEF states that “moving towards much shorter hours of paid work offers a new route out of the multiple crises we face today” - seeing how “many of us are consuming well beyond our economic means” and “well beyond the limits of the natural environment”.

Our increased consumption, the consumer culture, is self-evidently failing to “improve our well-being” - so notes the report, yet throughout the world “many others suffer poverty and hunger”. Centrally, 21 hours points out, “continuing economic growth in high-income countries” is fundamentally incompatible with the desire and goal to achieve “urgent carbon reduction targets”. Time is running out though - “widening inequalities” and a “failing” global economy have “critically depleted natural resources” and “accelerated” climate change, all of which “pose grave threats to the future of human civilisation”.

According to the NEF, “experiments” with shorter working hours “suggest that they can be popular” where “conditions are stable and pay is favourable” - and that a “new standard” of 21 hours could be consistent with the “dynamics of a decarbonised economy”. In fact, insists the report, there is “nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’ today” - “time, like work”, has “become commodified”: perverted and inhuman manifestations of the relatively recent “legacy of industrial capitalism”. Yet, in reality, argues 21 hours, the “logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions”, where “instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures” as well as new opportunities. The “challenge”, it concludes, is to “break the power of the old industrial clock” without adding or introducing new pressures - and, most cardinally of all, to “free up time” for workers to live “sustainable” and fulfilling lives.[6]

To bolster the arguments advanced in 21 hours, the NEF points to what it believes is the positive example of Utah. There the introduction of a four-day working week in the summer of 2008 for some 80% of the public sector workforce - by giving them a three-day weekend - far from heralding the collapse of civilisation into dark age barbarism, actually led to an increase in productivity, reduced absenteeism and dramatic savings in energy.

Hardly astonishingly, 82% of these workers said they preferred the new arrangements and wished the one-year experiment would continue. As for the state, it saved $4.1 million through reduced absenteeism and overtime and $1.4 million through reduced travel in state-owned vehicles - not to mention cutting carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons, other greenhouse gases by 8,000 tons and petrol consumption by 744,000 gallons.[7]

Unfortunately though, Utah is more and more the exception rather than the rule. Instead, to use the words of Anna Coote - head of the NEF’s social policy unit - economic growth has depended on a “volatile mix” of depressed wages and escalating material consumption, and we have “managed in our increasingly unequal society to divvy up time as an unequal commodity”. Just like everything else. Offering up an alternative vision of how society could be run, Coote asks us to imagine the following: “How would it feel to wake up on a chilly February morning? More time in bed, more time with the kids, more time to read, see your mum, hang out with friends, repair the guttering, make music, fix lunch, walk in the park. Whatever you need or want to do”.[8]

Not enamoured

Predictably, the bosses’ organisations were less than enamoured by the NEF’s 21 hours report-cum-campaign - to put it mildly. The Institute of Directors curtly claimed that Britain’s bosses are already, and increasingly, offering “flexible working arrangements” - yes, maybe, but flexible for whom? More vitriolically, executive director of the Adam Smith Institute Tom Clougherty spluttered about how the NEF’s Growth isn’t possible displayed a “complete lack of understanding of economics”, if not “human development in general”. For the mortally offended Clougherty, as he told the BBC, the “only one good thing” he could say about Growth isn’t possible was that it was “honest” - because the authors admitted that they “want us to be poorer” and “lead more restricted lives for the sake of their faddish beliefs”.[9]

Naturally, the philistine curmudgeons of the ASI and the IOD are, first and foremost, seeking to defend and legitimise the exploitative capitalist system - and, of course, the obscene privileges accrued over generations by their members and backers. Frankly, we believe that society’s total necessary labour time - which at this juncture is so monstrously inefficient and cruelly wasteful - ought to be and needs to be cut. We are totally opposed to the ‘work till you drop’ culture that has been inflicted on us by consecutive governments and the bosses - even if they have told us that ‘there is no alternative’.

As a logical corollary, we are equally opposed to the flipside of this exploitative eight-to-six culture - that is, the vapid and soulless ethos of ‘shop till you drop’: the shrill mantra of the bankrupt consumer culture which we are all being urged to follow as part of our patriotic duty to revive the economy (so max out those remaining credit and store cards).

More to the point, we in the CPGB argue that it is perfectly realistic to envisage and realise a radical drop in the necessary working time. However, we are also obliged to point out that in one sense the NEF’s 21 hours project is utopian or idealistic. Not in the sense that what it outlines and agitates for is somehow impossible - far from it. Rather, in the strict sense that the NEF’s worthy work and research lacks any agency to bring about such a much needed transformation - that is, the revolutionary power of the international working class and its organisations. Only the power of the working class can win the prize - not philanthropic and altruistic individuals, charitable bodies, NGOs or government sponsored think tanks.

Under the rule of the working class, as opposed to that of the capitalist class, we could do away with unemployment virtually at a stroke - by offering everyone useful work in nationalised industries and workplaces. At the same time we would abolish such unnecessary and parasitical sectors such as advertising, insurance, speculative banking, etc. In that way, we can certainly get average working hours down to 21 hours - no wild-eyed Shangri-La, as the likes of the Adam Smith Institute would have us believe, but an eminently practical project that can be delivered right here on earth.

We fight not just for the right of workers to have the time to think, to do politics, absolutely vital though that is - but also for the right to daydream, to be lazy, just as the privileged intellectual strata has done since the dawn of class society. By such means, the working class as a whole ceases to be a slave class and can become the ruling class.


  1. www.tuc.org.uk/work_life/index.cfm?mins=474&minors=474
  2. www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/hrpract/hoursandholidays/ukworkhrs
  3. www.toes-usa.org
  4. neweconomics.org/about
  5. neweconomics.org/publications/growth-isnt-possible
  6. neweconomics.org/publications/21-hours
  7. www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-06-30-four-day_N.htm
  8. neftriplecrunch.wordpress.com
  9. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8478770.stm