Why work doesn’t matter anymore

27th Feb, 2015

A report released by the Office for National Statistics at the end of last year revealed that, collectively, workers in the UK log almost 1bn hours a week at work.

That perhaps comes as no surprise (and perhaps some weeks it feels like you’ve done the lion’s share of that yourself), but the existence of a long hours culture isn’t as straightforward as the figures might suggest.

In fact, we spend less time working than we did a generation ago (a 4.7% drop since 1992, in total). But how much we work is less of a factor than when – increasingly in the evening and at weekends and during the week we don’t stop for lunch. In many professional jobs we have an unprecedented ability to take work home (and to work anywhere) as digital and mobile technology connects us to the office even when we aren’t there. Among the many upsides to this a significant downside emerges – that of being unable to fully switch off from work. Gone are the days of clocking in and out.

This is all the more surprising given how little work matters to us today. In 1990, work was second only to family in our list of priorities – 49% of people said their work was ‘very important to them in their life’. Last year, that figure had fallen to 21%, meaning that for many people in the UK, work is at best their 4th biggest priority – behind family, friends and leisure time. This trend begs the question – why do we bother?

Beyond our own personal priorities it has been a political priority in recent times to trumpet positive employment figures (record numbers of people in employment in the UK) as a sign of our continued recovery from the economic downturn (the unemployment rate falling to below 6% this month for the first time since 2008). Elsewhere we see binary distinctions drawn between those who work and those who don’t – strivers and skivers – with work promoted to people above all else as a source of personal pride and economic security.

A look beyond those topline figures reveals the hollow centre of that rhetoric – employment is up, but driven largely by population growth and people working for longer before retirement. Employment growth is concentrated in areas that struggle to provide financial security – whether through zero hours contracts or part time or temporary jobs for people who’d rather be in a full time, permanent position. This current proclivity for cheap, flexible labour has no positive impact on the UK’s productivity, which despite the overall increase in employee numbers, remains significantly below pre-downturn levels (explored here as part of our analysis of the post-recessionary consumer). And the distinction between strivers and skivers as it relates to benefits is unclear, as the most recent analysis of low income households – produced by the Department for Work and Pensions itself – found that  just under 40% of households in poverty were ones in which at least one adult worked. Is it fair to suggest that these factors could be driving the decrease in the importance people attach to work?

If we are to start valuing our jobs more than we do at the moment, significant changes in the way we train, employ and evaluate workers is required. In many modern businesses, this cultural change is already happening, which schemes such as 20% Time (where employees spend 20% of their time only working on projects that interest them) fostering autonomy, self control and freedom. Traditional management structures – ideal for the machinery and linear processes of 20th Century jobs – are less suited to 21st Century jobs, where creativity, cognitive thought and self management are more prevalent.

With that sort of cultural change, we may yet rediscover the importance we once attached to work, and the UK may see productivity rise again.

These issues and more were discussed at our Trends Breakfast event on 26th Feb: Understanding Work in 21st Century Britain. The slides are available to download for free here.