Willing Slaves (Paperback) by Madeleine Bunting
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Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives
by Madeleine Bunting
 

 

 

 

In John Maynard Keynes’ 1928 essay "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" he writes, "Let us for the sake of argument suppose that a hundred years from now we are eight times better off than we are in the economic sense than we are today." The United States GDP is now, indeed, nearly eight times larger than 1928 (6.5 times to be precise).

Keynes predicted: "…for the first time since his creation man would be forced to confront his real and permanent problem, how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him to live wisely and agreeably and well" (Keynes 1972, p. 328).

He believed we would be working two hours a day.

For a few decades it seemed like the Western world was heading towards Keynes’ Age of Leisure. The ‘Journal of Labor Research’ published a paper entitled ‘The decline in average annual hours worked in the United States, 1947–1979’, based on US government data and that from Fortune 500 companies, which demonstrated working hours had “declined significantly” due to “the dramatic rise in paid time off since 1947” (Vol. 4, No. 2, June 1983).
Since 1985, however, citizens in two of the leading economies in the world, the United States and United Kingdom, are now working longer hours. (Ironically, it is no longer a case of the downtrodden breaking their backs in the workplace, but the senior management: whereas a blue collar worker in Europe will put in 41 hours a week, this rises to 43 hours for professionals and 50 hours for managers.)
Stress is a daily occurence for most office workers, particularly those in the upper echelons
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Madeline Bunting’s polemic delves into the plight of the British, where full-time workers put in the longest hours in Europe at an average 43.6 a week, ahead of the EU average of 40.3.
It’s not just the number of hours that Bunting rails against, but the demands on workers, in terms of not only their labour but their emotions (cf. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser) and stress levels induced by having to compete in a fast-moving global economy. Mike Harris, the Chief Executive of internet bank egg states:
“the pace of work is getting worse… It’s the rate of change in globalisation – you’re subject to competition from people who are far bigger than you and who do things you’ve never thought of. Whenever you look you see the global competition, and you no longer have the forms of protection because of deregulation.” (p. 47)
Bunting’s book is nothing but comprehensive: for 267 pages she narrates the stories of individuals up and down the UK, from supermarket cleaners to computer programmers, who speak about their long working hours and sense of disenfranchisement and alienation.
The tales of the individuals concerned are no doubt very real, but I can’t help but feel these chapters are overly biased. In fairness to Bunting, she never professes this to be a balanced study – or a study at all – but the book would hold more weight if she were to write about the plight of workers with some degree of balance. According to Bunting the British worker is, indeed, practically a slave and little has changed since the days of Industrial Revolution when workers were forced to sweat for 14 hours a day in factories with no rights.
Yes, the British work harder than other Western European nations – though that is not much of a benchmark to be compared against – but most people don’t exert themselves to anything like the degree that Bunting purports. A riposte to her book is David Bolchover’s The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out – The Shocking Truth About Office Life. It debunks the myth of the overworked, stressed employee and writes about the millions of workers who spend hours in the office doing very little and shying away from responsibilities.

Bunting would do well to read some statistics about office life: 40 per cent of all casual drugs users in the US (people who use drugs just once a month) still choose to do it at work. One in three midweek visitors to the UK theme park Alton Towers has taken the day off work on a dishonest pretext. One in five US workers has had sex with a co-worker during work hours – full sex, that is. 44 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women have had at least some sexual contact at work. One third of young professionals in Britain are hungover at least twice a week on working days. Two thirds admitted to having called in sick due to alcohol at least once in the previous month. 70 per cent of Internet porn sites are accessed during the 9 to 5 working day.

According to the first American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on an “average day” in 2003, people in the U.S. age 15 and over slept about 8.6 hours, spent 5.1 hours doing leisure and sports activities, spent 1.8 hours doing household activities, 4.8 hours eating, drinking, studying and shopping and only 3.7 hours working.

And Britain’s supposedly enslaved proletariat is watching an average of 25 hours of television a week, to top all their other recreational activities.
People may be working a few hours a week more than 1985, but the average Joe enjoys more leisure time than his historic counterparts: in the middle ages, the average person in England spent  2309 hours working, which rocketed to 3105-3588 hours in 1840, and this currently stands at around a mere 1900 hours.
The final part of the book is entitled ‘What can be done?’ and Bunting asserts: “Britain has a choice… the American route of low regulation and high employment experts a powerful hold over the political establishment of both left and right. But across the Channel is an alternative of effective social democracy which does not shrink from intervening in the economy to achieve a common benefit.” (p. 301)
She writes about the 35 hour maximum working work in France and the 16 months paid leave entitlement for parents in Sweden when a child is born with glee and envy. She is correct: some Western Europeans have reduced the number of hours they work to a point where it is but a petty nuisance that gets in the way of a life of leisure: whereas Germans worked an average of 2,372 hours per year in 1964, by 1998 this had been slashed to a mere 1,560 (‘National Academy of Social Insurance’ debate, January 22-23, 2004, National Press Club).
This is all well and good, but what Bunting fails to disclose is the relative idleness of the Old Europe worker is stifling economic growth and this will have far reaching consequences. Fareed Zakaria penned a foreboding piece in the Washington Post on 14 February, 2006, ‘The Decline And Fall Of Europe’, in which he refers to the Chief Economist of the OECD who predicts that, if current trends continue, the average American will be twice as rich as the average Frenchman or German in just 20 years. Zakaria warns: “People have argued that Europeans simply value leisure more and, as a result, are poorer but have a better quality of life. That’s fine if you’re taking a 10 percent pay cut and choosing to have longer lunches and vacations. But if you’re only half as well off as the United States, that will translate into poorer health care and education, diminished access to all kinds of goods and services, and a lower quality of life.” (p. A15)
The winners according to the game of Capitalism are those who produce and the losers are those who don’t produce. No value is given to anything else. All things being equal, the employee who is still sitting in front of a computer in the office working at 6pm or 7pm will produce more than the one who is sitting in a cafe sipping cappuccino.
 
No matter what the cost to family relations, psychological health or spiritual well-being, in a world where unfettered capitalism is the only game in town, the workaholic (the slave, as Bunting calls him or her), ends up the winner. In 1980, the French were 23% richer than their British counterparts. In 1999, the French were only 9% richer than the British. In 2008, the French are poorer than the British.
 
Long leisurely afternoons in the cafe are a part of French life, but will it impact on the country's prosperity?
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Because of the dog-eat-dog nature of the capitalist superstructure, the worker who prizes quality of life over material output ends up being shoved into the gutter. Over 500,000 Brits. have bought properties in France and priced the French out of buying properties in the villages, towns and cities they were born in.
 
As the British invasion continues and the structural weaknesses of the French economy begin to impact on people’s lives, hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen and women will not be enjoying an Age of Leisure, but instead be labouring long hours and suffering anxiety and ill health as they struggle to earn enough Euros to compete with the hard working, high earning British just to buy a home for themselves.
 
He who toils the longest hours wins.

How we got to this ludicrous position I’d share my two pence worth, but I would require a few thousand more words and you’d better return to your work before you are let go.

 
 
Order Online: Buy the book from Blackwell’s bookstore (UK) and Amazon (USA)  
 
 
 
Do you think we work hard as a nation or not? What’s your situation? Are you so swamped with work that you don’t even have time for a coffee break or does your work day consist of watching youtube, reading forums and blogs, and surfing around travel websites trying to decide where to go on your next holiday? You can comment below. 
 
  

 

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