Are We Really All Working Too Much?

Our relationship with work has changed dramatically over the last century. But what exactly has gone wrong? And despite all the noise out there, are we really working too much?
Are we working too much?

Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’. In it he predicted something extraordinary. As the social importance of wealth accumulation diminished over the next two generations, he argued, we could expect to work less – much less. We’d work an average 15 hours per week, dedicating just 3 hours per day to what we’d define as work.

Of course, he couldn’t have been more wrong. While our working hours have reduced from peak Industrial Revolution levels, most of us are working 3 times longer each week than his prediction. What’s more, we’re more connected and bound to our work than ever. Social, technological and economic changes have redefined our relationship with work. And such is the magnitude of this shift, life can now seemingly be compartmentalised into work and non-work.

But is this even a problem? Is our newfound relationship with work all that bad?

How our working days are changing

To answer these questions, let’s start by looking at typical working hours.

A Gallup report from 2014 estimated that the average US full-time worker works 47 hours a week, with 40% working at least 50 hours. That’s one of the highest figures in the world, and it’s much higher than rates seen across Western Europe. According to Eurostat data, the UK works the longest hours in the European Union, at 42 hours per week, while the rest of the EU averages 40.3 hours.

Of course, these figures vary considerably by profession. Education is on the lower end of this scale, while industries like finance and oil sit at the higher end of the data. In some other developed countries, 40 hours is the standard week, but anecdotal evidence suggests overtime can take average hours much higher.

What we can safely say is that during our time in full-time work, we’ll almost certainly be working for a third of our waking lives. That’s a substantial chunk of time to earn a living, but it’s the norm.

Our connectivity to our work, however, is also shifting the balance during our other waking time. Technology means we can’t escape it. We’re increasingly connected and on call to our work at all hours, and that’s overwhelmingly reflected in recent data.

A survey conducted for GFI Software found that 81% of US employees check their work emails on weekends and 59% check their work emails while on holiday. And a YouGov survey found similar results for UK employees, despite the fact that 80% would rather completely switch off.

The march of the greys

It’s not just our working days that are changing. We’re working further into our older years, too. According to OECD data, the average retirement age across developed economies will be 66 by 2060 (68 and 67 in the UK and US, respectively). And let’s face it, with heightening fiscal pressures across the developed world, those estimates are likely to be conservative.

Some of us are already working at this age. The Economist reported in 2018 that 25% of American men aged 65-69 worked in the mid-1980s. Now, nearly 40% are working in that age bracket. Women are working longer too, and similar increases have been seen in Japan and across parts of Western Europe.

All this pushes our cumulative working hours to new heights, and there are numerous reasons for the uptick. Unhealthier workers tend to retire earlier, and since mortality rates for people in their 60s have gone down, we’d expect to see an increase in the number of people working in this age group. Education and occupation are proving relevant too. Better-educated, white-collar workers tend to work longer. And these jobs tend to be less physically demanding, thus permitting a longer period in work.

Notwithstanding, here’s the reality: if you’re entering the job market at 21 years old, perhaps after finishing university, you’re staring down the barrel of at least 45 years of work, based on the average figures. You’ll then have 15-20 years of retirement, assuming you conform with predicted life expectancy. Your retirement years will statistically put you in the age bracket in which most of us begin to see the telling effects of our preceding years alive.

Is working more really a problem?

This can all be a depressing thought, but should we be downbeat about it? After all, work plays an important role in our lives, providing camaraderie, structure and routine, and even purpose.

The problem, it seems to me, is threefold. First, the growth of corporate white-collar employment is creating work structures more detached from meaningful business outcomes. The creation of such jobs has been a blessing, elevating our economic prosperity and lifting many from poverty. But the work is generally more detached – and consequently, I would argue less meaningful – than the jobs that economies of old created.

Second, increased digital connectivity and social-economic changes have driven a dramatic shift in our relationship with work over the decades. Family, social life, leisure, rest, religious practice and other non-work activities have amalgamated into something we’ve come to label as ‘life’. And these things sit juxtaposed with ‘work’, often increasing our resentment for the latter. Such is the extent of this compartmentalisation, we now universally seek to find that perfect ‘work-life balance’.

Third, we feel more reliant on our employers. In order to service growing financial obligations (many self-inflicted), we’re needing our employers for longer. Put another way, we don’t feel like we have any other choice.

The consequence is that we don’t own our time. That’s why achieving financial independence as early as possible is so important. It’s not a prerequisite to hate your job, nor is it a prerequisite to quit your job once you’ve got there. It’s about choice. The choice to quit and do something else, the choice to work in an office until you’re 90 – in short, the choice to do whatever you like with your life.

Should we be working less?

But what of the here and now? Are we simply working too long each day?

Let’s first address this question in the light of productivity. The idea of a 4-day working week or shorter working hours in a 5-day week has gained traction, in part as a result of trials in Sweden and New Zealand. These trials showed that a reduction in working hours had no impact on productivity and improved energy and morale levels among employees.

This is consistent with an observation known as ‘Parkinson’s law’, which suggests work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Clearly there’s a point at which time will not allow completion of our jobs, however – and that’s unlikely to be 15 hours (sorry, Mr Keynes). The idea is not likely to have economic legs either, unless this begins to be used as a mechanism for corporations to compete on attracting the best talent.

Our economic trajectory probably means it’s safe to assume we won’t be working 6-hour days or 4-day weeks for the same money in the near future. So we need to deal with what we have. 40 hours per week isn’t too much, per se, but the type of work, our relationship with it, and our lack of independence are bigger issues.

We’re also facing decades of desk work. That brings about some of its own unique problems. Sitting on our backsides all day comes with associated health problems. It’s not what human bodies were designed to do.

And our constant connectivity to our work also risks digital burnout. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that work-related stress already costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year. So if cutting hours isn’t an option, employers need to think more seriously about managing these problems in their workforce.

Work gets a bad press

Talk of long working days, later retirement and work-life balance tends to conjure only negative connotations. But work can and does make us happy.

We have worked since life itself began. Our work in the new world may look different, but we must make it work for us. We must find fulfilment in it wherever we can, and we must find even more fulfilment outside it.

And while we’re in it, we need to work smarter. That means eliminating the distractions and unnecessary decisions and working more productively to ensure we don’t allow work to dominate our time.

Our life is the sum of all the parts, and those parts must all work together in tandem. If you’re living your life from the ‘work-life’ script, the onus is on you to bin that script and start your life script.

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