The time we’re owed
by Aidan Harper
Are we ‘owed’ more leisure time? We live in an economy which systematically extracts from us the time we have: in exchange for wages we give employers labour, effort, and skills. In conjunction with technology, these create products and services to be bought and sold. It is from the value of these products and services that business owners and shareholders acquire their profits. Our entire economic system is built on the backs of workers who spend their time working to generate profits, largely for others.
Hour by hour, day by day, we are giving an unnecessarily large proportion of our lives over to work. Over the course of our lives British workers commit an average of 3,515 full days (84,360 hours) to their work. A significant proportion of this is unpaid overtime, with the average worker spending a total of 4,512 unpaid hours at work over their career.
Today there is serious talk of raising the pension age to 75. Yet life expectancy for men in Blackpool is just 74.2 years, meaning that people are increasingly expected to quite literally work up until the end of their life.
In exchange for the time spent at work, we receive a wage which we rely on to survive. Of course once we’ve been paid, our wages largely go back out of the door to pay rent, buy food and pay our energy bills. They go to owners of capital – landlords, supermarket owners, energy companies – and we are left with the remainder.
Free time as a matter of social justice
Since the advent of capitalism workers have fought for time to use as they wish. In a fair and just society free time would be viewed as an essential resource which we have a claim upon as a matter of social justice. What does this mean in practice? It would mean building an economy that ensures that the gains of economic activity are shared evenly with workers not only in the form of pay but also in the form of working time reduction, and where workers can increase as much as possible the time they call their own.
Free time is a fundamental resource without which we cannot enjoy the fullness of our lives. No matter how much wealth our economy produces, if we do not have the time to enjoy any of it, we cannot consider ourselves to be free. The concept of freedom within a society which sees work as an end in and of itself is an emaciated one – where we are unable to have a genuine choice with what we want to do with our lives because we are constrained by an outdated model of working time.
In an effort for greater freedom and a more just society, we should therefore look to orient the economy in such a way which maximises the amount of time we have outside of work as part of a new social settlement in which our time is a fundamental factor.
How much time are we owed?
We know that we have been living in an economy which has grown substantially over the past 40 years, yet reductions in working time have stalled. NEF research has found that since the advent of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, workers have seen weaker increases in leisure time despite continued productivity growth (up until the 2008 Global Financial Crisis). And the failure for workers to be given shorter hours hasn’t been compensated with higher wages, which have broadly tracked productivity increases and then flatlined since the crisis a decade ago.
In a report out later this autumn, we will show how changes to the structure of the economy over the past 40 years have meant that workers have missed out on more leisure time. Policy decisions made since the 1980s meant that workers have been inhibited from reducing their working time. Working alongside the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU), a confederation with a long history of working time reduction campaigns, we are researching contemporary examples where trade unions have fought for and won new models of working time in manufacturing and industrial sectors, despite these constraints.
Today we’re publishing new analysis demonstrating the decoupling of productivity from leisure time in the UK. This analysis represents a contribution to the growing evidence base that the economy is large enough and productive enough to sustain a move towards a world of less work.
Behind this economic case is a story of historical injustice. We are pleased to be part of a growing movement of voices building a new politics of time to ensure that workers can take back the time they are owed.
This was originally posted on the New Economics Foundation blog on 12th September 2019.
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