Chris Harman

Thinking It Through

A fair day’s work ...

(April 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995, p. 9.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Americans now work an average of 164 hours more annually than 20 years ago. This amounts to about a month of work per year’

The features pages of the heavy newspapers trade in fads. They relish in extolling the fashionable, whether it’s a film director, a tourist resort or an idea. In this way millions of words are printed about the latest trend, only to be forgotten a couple of years later.

So it was with the excitement over designer clothes and environmental issues in the late 1980s or over ‘the end of history’ and ‘the peace dividend’ in 1990. So it is over the Internet and Tarantino today.

Yet occasionally one of the fads raises issues of real importance. That is happening today with the sudden discovery by journalists that people – or at least those who are usually referred to as ‘middle class’ – are working harder.

The Financial Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Guardian have all recently carried articles noting a trend to harder and longer work. Typical was a recent London Evening Standard article, ‘Overwork: the middle class epidemic’. It notes that the ‘paradox of modern life [is] that as the nation becomes richer the middle classes have to work harder ... an increasing number of white-collar workers are spending ten, 11 or even 12 hours a day at the office as a matter of routine.’

However, the trend towards longer working hours is not new as far as the world’s biggest single economy, the US, is concerned. And the prime victims are by no means middle class, even if sometimes they think they are.

B.K. Hunnicut has noted that in the US ‘the century long movement’ to shorter working hours ‘reached a turning point in 1933’. After that the working week started to grow longer in two spurts, from 1933 to 1943 and then from the mid-1970s to the present day. A survey in 1985 showed that ‘the average working week had increased 20 percent, from 40.6 hours in 1973 to 48.8 hours in 1985’.

Juliet Schor has pointed out, ‘Americans now work an average of 164 hours more annually than 20 years ago. This amounts to about a month more of work per year.’

In Britain the working week has also started growing, from an average of 42.3 hours in 1983 to 43.4 in 1992. This is not nearly as bad as in the US, but it is still a far cry from the 35 or even 30 hour week we were once told would be general by the end of the century. The daily ‘free time’ left after travel, work, sleep and eating for average full time employees was only 2.6 hours for men and 2.1 hours for women in 1985.

Long hours are certainly not a ‘middle class’ phenomenon. It is overwhelmingly manual workers and low grade white collar workers who depend on overtime to raise average weekly pay – it accounted for 16 percent of average manual pay last year. A quarter of manual workers do more than 48 hours a week, as against only 5.4 percent of white collar workers. So most manual workers cannot get more than about an hour and a half ‘free time’ a day – and they are much more likely to be too tired to enjoy this than the genuine middle classes.

Manual workers are still most likely to do shift work and to be subject to payments by results systems. The result is shown in every survey of employee health. Despite the myth of the ‘overworked manager’, it is in fact manual and routine white collar workers who suffer most from stress and associated diseases like heart disease.

As a survey in the mid-1980s found:

‘Frequencies of death in the UK due to major causes increase as we move from professional and white collar jobs down to the unskilled. This applies both to stress related illness such as ischaemic heart disease and to other illnesses such as pneumonia and prostate cancer.’

Another survey revealed that while 11 percent of men and women from social groups ABC1 ‘experienced emotional strain for at least half the day before, 19 percent of men and 23 percent of women from social groups DE did.

What is true, however, is that attempts by major employers and the government to increase profitability are causing them to begin to use against sections of ‘middle grade’ white collar workers methods traditionally reserved for manual workers.

So there is market testing in the civil service, the introduction of appraisal in schools and universities, the attempt to impose new contracts with longer hours in further education, staffing cutbacks in banking and insurance, the increased use of 24 hour call lines manned by shift workers and the spread of flexible, unsocial hours with deregulation of the retail sector.

The result, invariably, is a spread of the sorts of stress traditionally experienced by manual workers to new groups. As a report on the experience of female office clerks in Sweden showed in the mid-1980s, ‘The introduction of highly progressive piece rates produced a significant improvement in productivity, but also feelings of rush, fatigue and physical discomfort.’ At about the same time the Swedish Institute for Social Research found ‘a steady increase in the percentage of the population having stressful working conditions’.

What in reality is happening is something Marx referred to in Capital. Capitalists and their states try to counter pressures on profitability during periods of crisis in two ways. They try to increase ‘absolute surplus value’ by extending working hours. And they try to increase ‘relative surplus value’ by pushing for ‘increased expenditure of labour in a given time, heightened tension of labour power, and a filling up of the pores in the working day.’

In previous periods of crisis they focused their attention on manual workers. Now, with half the workforce white collar, they are bearing much of the brunt – their conditions are being ‘proletarianised’. But precisely because they used to assume they were protected from such nastiness, they get even more irate than those who have been treated in this way for generations.

The ‘revolt of the middle classes’ is very much a revolt of those who are workers but are only just beginning to learn this the hard way. It is further proof that Marx was right when he predicted an increasing polarisation between the owners of the means of production and the rest of us. And it should help destroy the other fashionable idea, that we live in a two thirds/one third society, in which most people are privileged and only an ‘underclass’ suffers.

Last updated on 3 November 2019