Pat Longman reviews Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives by Madeleine Bunting (Harper Collins, £12.99)
“For about one in three of all British workers, exhaustion, stress or both have become an inescapable part of their working lives.”
Madeleine Bunting argues that the weakening of the trade union movement, neo-liberalism and New-Ageist ideology have all contributed to a work environment that is increasingly unbearable. She provides facts, figures, case studies, and draws on anecdotal evidence to document how we are all working a lot, lot harder than we used to.
Bunting’s book is both insightful and politically provocative — she homes in on the Labour government’s obsessive work ethic as being a contributory factor to increasing exploitation at work; highlights how increasing insecurity at work has contributed to the long hours culture; and also outlines how, for many people, it is not just the time they spend at work, but also the effort that is required when they get there that adds up.
The facts and figures are shocking. 60% of those people who worked more than 48 hours before the European Working Time Directive (European legislation limiting working hours to 48 hours per week) are still doing so. Only 2% have seen their working week reduced below 48 hours. 46% men and 32% of women work more hours than they are contracted for. UK workers have the longest hours in Europe: 43.6 a week, compared with the European average of 40.3 hours a week.
Bunting sympathetically documents how long hours have become a focus for worker discontent. She highlights the long-hours, overtime culture of the British labour movement, and outlines the changes that are beginning to happen, noting that many low-paid workers are being forced into working long hours due to poverty wages, and find themselves trapped.
What comes as a surprise, however, is that a large part of her book is not about low-paid, industrial workers but about highly paid white-collar workers — often in managerial positions.
These are the workers who bought into the work ethic — believing, as Bunting puts it, that “the office is the heart, not the home”, and that it was through their jobs that they would achieve self-development and personal fulfilment.
Forty percent of managers work more than 50 hours a week. They believed all the “mumbo jumbo” (see Francis Wheen’s book with the same title) of building the corporate brand and giving your all to the corporation.
These ageing workers, who have never been part of the labour movement, are now suffering from burn-out, increasing stress levels and bad health, and are in the process of literally working themselves into an early grave.
You may find it difficult to sympathise with this group. They not only failed to stop the deterioration of their own working conditions, but also ensured that the long hours culture become the norm for all workers. And, unlike the mass of lower paid workers, they had an opt-out clause – they have enough property and money to buy themselves a little place in the country.
Bunting’s other concern is the impact that the long hours culture is having on the female workforce, a section that proved to be the most controversial aspect of her book.
She states that the “inbuilt contradictions between the organization of how we work and how our families function are thrown on the shoulders of individual women — and to a lesser extent men. Failure is then perceived as being due not to those contradictions, but to your own personal inadequacies: you aren’t well enough organized, you need better time management or you need to boost your energy levels with vitamin supplements and aromatherapy”.
She states that “at stake here is not women’s strength of character, but the impact of a market economy on human sustainability: the reproduction of daily life”, and considers that the disinvestment by women, the underinvestment by men in the care economy, coupled with a decline in the welfare state, has led to a “care deficit”. Or, to put it bluntly: who looks after the kids, the elderly, teenagers, partner, and what happens to “our sense of home”?
She argues against forcing women back to work after having children and believes that instead of being offered inducements to get a job, parents should be offered support and encouragement for the job they’ve already got — being parents — and she argues that there is a dangerous tendency to regard childcare as the magic wand which will solve the inherent conflict between the overwork culture and raising small children.
And I agree. Parents should have the choice. Bunting puts forward a manifesto where she argues, among other things, that there should be a care allowance for parents caring full-time for children under three, that there should be universal childcare for all three- and four-year-olds, and that there should be 18 months’ paid parental leave, available to either parent.
At the same time as Bunting’s book came out in paperback and was serialised in the Guardian, research suggested that for some under-twos nursery care may result in negative consequences.
Suddenly support for childcare for the under-twos become the litmus test for your commitment to women’s right to work. Bunting was castigated for implying that some women might want to stay at home and look after babies.
But what had Margaret Hodge and other government spokespeople and commentators got to say about Madeleine Bunting’s main thesis — that the overwork culture is having a detrimental impact on women’s employment, that their ability to continue to work, to take promotion, is being hampered by the fact that they are too damned tired?
Bunting touches on the fact that there is anecdotal evidence that young people (and girls in particular) are looking in horror at their stressed-out parents and are rejecting the work ethic.
The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was built by those who rejected the 1950s’ role for women. Perhaps we will see a renewed women’s movement.
But it would be bad if we only got one because we had failed significantly to improve the quality of working lives and cut the working week for today’s women, the women beginning to drop out of work due to sheer exhaustion.