Demos Daily: Finding time to live

For those tackling the coronavirus on the front line, these past weeks and months will have been the most physically and emotionally challenging times of their lives. Yet for many of us, we know that the best thing we can do is stay at home, and embrace a slower pace of life. Without commutes and hectic social calendars, we’ve had more time, in theory, to do other worthwhile things: exercise, learn a new language, spend quality time with our families. It’s worth remembering that up until now, we have often been guilty of moving too fast, getting caught up in the rat race, or neglecting things that matter in life outside of work. Will this be a turning point where many of us rethink how we rebalance our lives going forward?

Back in 1995, the late sociologist Ray Pahl wrote in an issue for Demos Quarterly why we need a new balance of all aspects of life. Read his article below.

Finding time to live

Why do people work so hard? Was it ever thus? It has been calculated that a male employee born in the mid nineteenth century spent roughly 30 per cent of his lifetime hours in paid work, whereas a man born in the mid twentieth century will spend only about 10 per cent. (1) We now spend more time in education and training and we live longer, but still the relief from toil has not yet appeared. Many contemporary illnesses appear to be caused by hurry sickness, triggered by an exaggerated sense of urgency. An American study noted that computer related distress manifests itself in the temporal schizophrenia of those who move in and out of computer time, and become less tolerant of interruptions, less patient with those who cannot respond appropriately to the speed of programs, less capable of slow reflection. (2)

Another argument put forward to account for contemporary unease and work induced anxiety is that people are afraid: of unemployment, of a decline in their standard of living and of downward social mobility. The assumption that in some previous golden age people were not afraid is hard to justify for anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the English Poor Laws. There must be many others apart from myself who were threatened that if they did not desist from some activity they would die in the work house (in my case it was whistling at meal times). But perhaps most people’s memories are not that long: the past for them is the 1950s when they mistakenly imagine that most middle class male earners had careers in organizations and working class men had gently rising wages due to a combination of collective solidarities and inflation.

History will provide support for almost any perspective on the work ethic, and associated stress and anxieties. It is hard to discover how ordinary people felt about their everyday working lives in the past. One plausibly authentic account is provided by Stephen Duck, a plebeian poet, writing in about 1720 who complained about the burdens of the agricultural worker:

Think what a painful life we daily lead.
Each morning early rise, go late to bed;
Nor, when asleep, are we secure from Pain;
We then perform our labours o’er again;
Our mimic fancy ever restless seems;
And what we act awake, she acts in dreams. Hard Fate our Labour ev’n in Sleep don’t cease:

Alas poor Stephen! He was firmly put in his place as a whingeing man in remarkably contemporary style by his contemporary Mary Collier, who wrote a rejoinder heavily influenced by late seventeenth century feminist thought. Not only did women also have their hard manual labour but, in addition, they had to do the cooking, cleaning and childcare:

We all Things for your coming home prepare: You sup and go to Bed without Delay
And rest yourself till the ensuing Day;
While we, alas! but little Sleep can have Because our froward Children cry and rave.

Stephen Duck and Mary Collier were writing in pre-industrial England. They faced the burdens imposed by inclement weather, heavy soil, bad harvests and too many pregnancies.

Yet there were also many feast days and holidays: it is unlikely that Stephen Duck’s account of his miseries was accurate for more than perhaps a third or half of the year. Even in the late nineteenth century the tradition of ‘Saint Monday’ was kept in much of the Midlands (Monday was a holiday to recover from the excess drinking of the weekend). One example, provided by the nailers of Stourbridge in Worcestershire in 1874, showed that they had Sunday free, Monday for seeking orders and iron, Thursday for resting or idling and Saturday a weighing in day. This left a three day working week, when admittedly the hours were long – maybe from 5 am to as late as 10 pm. The working week was flexible and there were other, longer interruptions such as the summer migrations to help with the harvest. In the mid 19th century half of the workers in Stourbridge were still engaged in a task-oriented economy with highly flexible hours. ‘Those who worked in the home alternated between long periods of sustained hard work and an extended weekend in which they could indulge, if they wished, in the traditional Black Country pastimes of pigeon-flying, dog-fighting and drinking’. (3)

At the end of the 1980s I interviewed a small group of young investment analysts, company lawyers and bankers in the city who had all been to the same Oxbridge College. Most started work at 7.30 or 8 am and stayed in their offices until 6 or 7 pm and sometimes later. They had no time to do ordinary domestic tasks, and spent much of thier quite considerable salaries on expensive meals in restaurants. Some had to rely on regular trips home to their parents at weekends to get their laundry done. Even if they had the energy for sex they told me that they could not afford to get married to someone like themselves and have children. Their hours of work made commuting impossible and a large house in London with one or two servants seemed too much for them to contemplate at the age of 28.

The mood of the 1990s is different: manic workaholicism still exists to be sure, but so also does a much greater awareness of work-induced stress. The ingredients are now familiar – even if precise quantification is still open to debate: contracting out, down-sizing, delayering and other manifestations of rational management have brought insecurity to large sections of the middle mass. Married women’s increased labour market participation, particularly in part-time employment, has made it more difficult to maintain the stereotype of the male full-time earner supporting ‘his’ dependant household. As Rosalind Coward has persuasively suggested, women are increasingly torn between the competitiveness of employment and the competitiveness of parenting, but they may be more adept than men both at articulating their dilemmas and at coping with the difficult balancing of their tasks. (4)

In America the shift from characterising the middle class as ‘the contented class’ to seeing it as an ‘anxious class’ has taken place swiftly and has caused substantial political turbulence. Books like Katherine Newman’s Falling from Grace: the Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class (1988) or Barbara Ehrenheich’s Fear of Falling (1990), (5) have documented the situation of the new ‘career- challenged’ middle class.

Managerial downward mobility generates a floating, ambiguous, … condition that can be as permanent as that of the disabled (Newman 93–4).

A Mori poll conducted for The Sunday Times in the summer of 1994 confirmed ‘a deep unease’ in Britain – greatest amongst the middle-aged middle class (those between the ages of thirty-five and fifty- four). The survey – focused on managerial, professional administrative and clerical workers in employment – showed that 35 per cent were concerned that they would experience redundancy over the next twelve months. For a quarter of the families redundancy had been a recent experience. The recession of 1990–1992 seems to have done for the middle class what was done to the manual workers in Britain a decade earlier. The Sunday Times’ report concluded ‘the comfortable life is over, the middle classes are working longer hours, without extra financial reward, just to hold on to their job!’

There are, indeed, scattered reports in the middle 1990s that people are staying longer at the office out of fear: for people to leave work early might imply that they are dispensable. Of course the idea that managers pretend to work harder than they do is not new. I found evidence for that in my study of managers undertaken in the late 1960s and Scase and Goffee reported similar results in the late 1980s. (6) The novelty of the present situation is that now there are more women managers, and secondly there may be more concern amongst men to share parenting. The work/family trade off is becoming more of a problem for both men and women.

So, if the age of the career is over and the concept of a job for life has disappeared, what is the most plausible pattern for the future? One fashionable idea is that of the longitudinal job portfolio where the mobile journeymen craftsmen of the computer age move between different forms of employment and self-employment, gradually improving their credentials and employability. For some natural entrepreneurs this is an exciting and challenging prospect as they busily take on new projects to look good on their CVs and happily network their way to being able to live on the interest from their cultural capital. Those who find this alarming will just have to adapt, say the hard-nosed gurus from the Business Schools, and little is said about the plight of those with a portfolio of Mac-jobs with no potential for accumulating cultural capital.

In doing the research for my book (7) I interviewed a number of people holding very senior positions in British industry. One such man, aged 45, was earning a substantial salary as an organization man, but was disarmingly frank about how he saw his future:

‘You talked about the shift from employment to consultancy. I think I’d find that a very difficult and threatening shift. I’d come to the conclusion that I’m an organization man. I ought to be flipping in and out of organizations and self employment … and I’d find that quite difficult to do.

I think a lot of people are like that; they like the security of employment and self-employment to them is a threat … I’m very happy working in project teams, multi-discipline, multi- level project teams. I think I’d be quite lonely working as an individual, as a self employed consultant … I think I’m more of a social person than that … there are very few genuinely entrepreneurial people …’

This man has an exceptionally broad understanding of human resource management, but finds it very hard to practise what he preaches.

It is clear that we have run full circle. For just over a hundred years men and women have suffered from the demands of an industrial capitalism that has turned them from the task-oriented nailers of Stourbridge, who enjoyed the autonomy of organizing their time, to the successful, yet insecure organization man of the early 1990s.

Can we recover the enthusiasm for a task-oriented approach to work which is the way men and women have always worked until the very recent present? Can we help people to create the elusive balance in their lives to provide continuity, a degree of security and a stable sense of identity? In order to do this it will be necessary to take a fresh look at work and the social relations in which it is embedded. There is much to learn from those who are able to structure their work lives when they have the freedom to do so. This is an area much neglected by those exploring the latest trends in organizational behaviour. One rare example is provided by William Ronco and Lisa Peattie in Making Work. Self-created/Jobs in Participating Organizations (Plenum Press 1983). As more people are encouraged or obliged to work from home it is important that they are prepared for what seems new – but which is a historically normal – style of work. People have to learn to make both internal and external boundaries for themselves: within the new pattern of flexible and autonomous work arrangements people must now learn to create internal boundaries. They have to create for themselves categories of different kinds of tasks and segments of the work. They must learn to devise personal priorities and organize preferences.

The external boundaries are also necessary to separate work from non-work activities. Doing all this will not be easy. For example, as a writer, when am I reading for pleasure and when am I preparing myself for future work?

These new balances involve a more holistic understanding of ourselves and what we want out of life. Sadly, Government schemes focused on training and enterprise have a too narrow view of the problem. Recognising the real dilemmas of people in their households with conflicting pressures from partners, children, parents, maybe even grandparents and the added complexity of previous partners and step children would involve a massive broadening out of the narrow perspective of the Department of Employment or the Department of Trade and Industry. The fact that managers are now more wary and resistant to the demands of greedy organizations has to be recognised. When one ‘reluctant manager’ remarked to Scase and Goffee that ‘I don’t live to work; I work to live’ he deserves to be taken seriously. Very significantly, the results of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey show that in 1993, 58 per cent of the 18–24 age group and 57 per cent of the 25–34 age group were not prepared to let their commitment to work interfere with their lives. Only 37 per cent of the 45–54 age group showed this sort of reluctance.

I believe that an important ingredient of the new politics of the late 1990s is this new search for balance between all aspects of life. People are afraid of the rampant individualism of the 1980s and they now need space to develop their own distinctive forms of and identity. The emphasis is too often on training for jobs that are not there or on preparation for self-employment seen primarily as a matter of accounting skills. However, the real challenge is to prepare people to manage the flow of different forms of work, both paid and non-paid, as these forms change through their lives.


(1) Karl Hinrichs et al. (eds) Working Time in transition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991)
p. 235

(2) Ibid., p. 237

(3) Eric Hopkins. ‘Working conditions in Victorian Stourbridge’. International Review of Social History 19(3), 1974, pp. 401–425

(4) Rosalind Coward, Our treacherous hearts (London: Faber 1992).

(5) Newman (New York: Free Press, 1988), Ehrenheich (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

(6) R.E. and Jan Pahl Managers and their wives, (Penguin 1971), R. Scase and R. Goffee, Reluctant Managers.

(7) Pahl, R., After Success (Polity Press, September 1995).