Slave New World

First the bad news. Then some more bad news. And then some good news.

The way we work today is corroding our culture and killing our relationships. This is ‘bad’ but if you’re in work it’s probably not news. The indicators have been going downhill for years.

Work is not even working for the people at the top. They’re making money but, for many, at an awesome cost to themselves and their families. As one person put it: “I’m working this hard so I can spend lots of time with my grandchildren.” Which may be some consolation to him but may not be much comfort to his children. And this is self-evidently not just a middle-class, white collar phenomenon. Ceridian Research among under 30s suggested that 6 out of 10 feel stressed because of their workloads. And there is evidence that people entering the workforce are less willing to put in the hours their parents did. Why should they? They’ve seen their parents or their parents’ friends give twenty years to a company only to be ushered out of a team meeting they’re chairing, fired and escorted off the premises without being able to say goodbye or clear their desk. Why be loyal to that?

This suspicion of companies creates another dynamic, as Richard Sennett points out in his brilliant book The Corrosion of Character. There is now, he argues, a tension between the values that seem to be required by the workplace – short-term, superficial bonhomie and cooperativeness – and the values that many individuals hold dear and want to pass on to their children or live out before their friends and peers - service, loyalty, long-term commitment.  How difficult it is to live those values when it seems that they are neither appreciated nor appropriate to those who want to survive in work into their later forties and beyond. 

Not of course that quite so many people want to work into their late 50s anymore. As Libby Purves pointed out in The Times, people used to look at you askance if you were 52, out of work, and not looking for a job. Now, as long as you have the nice pension package, good for you. 

Overall, British people work longer hours than any other country in the EU, even five and half hours longer than those hard-working Germans. Combine that with the amount of time many people take to get to work and it is obvious how the dynamics of work are affecting every aspect of life. But it was ever thus. How we work has a profound impact on every area of life and this goes some way to explaining the increasingly high percentage of people on anti-depressants, the record levels of people who are anxious and ‘negatively stressed,’ and the declining levels of voluntary honesty. 

Today - in the West at least - it is not the physical conditions of work that we need to battle, itis the psychological conditions of work.

We in Britain are in crisis. And the crisis which faces us is not primarily an economic crisis, though the challenges of globalisation and new technologies on workstyles and lifestyles are immense, the crisis is this: how can we flourish economically and still have lives worth living. 

Why has it got this bad?

Kreitzman, the non Christian author of the brilliant 24 Hour Society, points the finger at that old green dragon - greed. Some of us have chosen money over time: sacrificed time with family, time with friends, time walking the dog... for making a bit more money. That may well have been true five years ago but many people today feelforced to sacrifice their time so that they can make enough money to live with a modicum of social dignity in a consumerist culture. Or more disturbingly, many people feel forced to work late not so that they can acquire a five bedroom house in Mayfair in the time it takes a Maserati to go from 0 – 60mph, no, they feel forced to work late just to stay employed. The bottom line is that the technological elite will get richer and work hard. The rest of us will just work harder.

No social commentator seriously questions this. But few are prepared to offer an alternative. Kreitzman’s book included. This is not a problem that can be solved by The Little Book of Calm’s stress management techniques: eating lentils, meditating on desk photos of azure Caribbean skies and taking a bit more exercise is not going to compensate for a 60hour week and nine hours in traffic. Nor for most people is the problem going to be solved by downsizing to less demanding work. It’s an option for some but not for the majority. Similarly, some people like Derek (the name has been changed to protect the innocent) who works in a large London firm did feel able to refuse the offer of a directorship on the grounds that it would require him to stay regularly after 5.30. And he did it for several years in a row. But not many people are that good at their work. Still, it’s a thought, isn’t it? Saying ‘boo’ to the system. Saying: ‘I make enough money’ and ‘my family is more important than an extra £20K a year or even the satisfactions of a higher level job.’ It’s a possibility for some. 

But only for some. Suzanne Franks’ recent book Having None of it – Women, Men and the Future of Workis similarly disturbing, particularly as it relates to women. Women may been told that they can have it all but they are discovering that in reality they may have none of it. The relationship between work and life is in crisis. Brazell’s old quote: “Monday is a terrible way to spend a seventh of your life,” is becoming alarmingly true of the rest of the week.

Now, of course, there have been some tentative responses to this problem – The Industrial Society produced a volume on the work-life balance and there are some consultancies beginning to pop their sleekly styled haircuts over the parapet but to date no one really has a clue but as Steve Beck, LICC’s Chairman and the former Managing Director of a major European Management Consultancy, said: “It’s all just cosmetic. None of it gets to the heart of the matter.”

A developed Christian response to this has not emerged. Clearly, we need one. We cannot simply throw up our hands in the air and say: “Let them make bricks without straw, because at least they’re eating cake.” Nor will traditional thunderings against workaholism really help our people – it may not be their fault. And yet… we cannot long allow so many in our society to suffer without a radical critique and some radical alternative. Still we have, as the overall community of Christ a long, long way to go. Our research indicates that the average person in the pew gets virtually no teaching on work in general, never mind on how to challenge the oppressive dynamics of contemporary capitalism.

Thankfully, there are some indications that this is beginning to change but we will, as a community, have to move fast if we, and our society, are not to be swept away in the tidal wave of long hours and insecurity.