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Why I Work On My Summer Holiday

Author: Sebastian Mallaby, Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics
August 15, 2012
Financial Times


Writing in the FT last month, Robert and Edward Skidelsky lamented that we should all work less and enjoy life more. I have duly repaired to the French countryside, and it saddens me to report that the local 8 à Huit supermarket, which used to bolt its doors at 5pm, now humourlessly lives up to its name by staying open until eight. At least the bar in the village is shuttered in the afternoons. Some people still understand the good life.

Following the Skidelsky prescription, I am playing Racing Demon (a card game) with my children and reading some engrossing books. One is by the Skidelskys themselves – though they revile marketers for manufacturing material wants, the subliminal message of their FT column has clearly seduced me. But now, by a paradox, they have provoked me to fire up my laptop. As I hunch over the keyboard, I am aware that I may be succumbing to a pitiable workaholism. But I do not regret my plight. I work because I like it.

This conundrum, I submit, gets to the core of the Skidelskys' argument and to the nub of the broader debate about "life satisfaction," "well-being," and other alternatives to gross domestic product per capita as gauges of human progress. Channeling Keynes, who predicted that his grandchildren's generation would need to work no more than 15 hours per week, the Skidelskys suggest that we would do precisely that if we knew what was good for us. We are the victims of a "competitive, status-driven consumption". If we could only control our work addiction, we would have time for higher things. GDP would stagnate, but our work-life balance would be better.

Quite how workaholic we really are is a matter of perspective. In 1830 American manufacturing workers put in an average of 69 hours per week. By 1900 this had fallen to 57 hours, and today the number stands at about 40. Moreover, the decline in weekly work hours conceals much of the true shift. Holidays have grown longer, even if the habit of sleeping with your smartphone (and, yes, toting your laptop) has turned some holidays into what Lucy Kellaway calls "worlidays" . And people spend more years studying before entering the workforce, as well as more years in retirement after leaving it. According to the historian Robert Vogel, in 1880 the average American man worked for 80 per cent of his lifetime's waking hours. By 1995, that share had plummeted to 40 per cent.

The Skidelskys are saying that this share should be even lower. Our prodigious productivity gains allow us to earn adequate incomes while clocking even less time on the job; only our myopia keeps us at the grindstone. But would we truly be happier if we worked less? Your holidaying correspondent suspects that holidays are over-rated.

The case against work relies on surveys of worker preferences. In a study of British workers published in 2004, René Böheim and Mark Taylor found that 40 per cent said they would like to work less, 7 per cent said they would like to work more, while the rest felt they had the right balance. The Skidelskys cite similar findings for the US and Europe – the proportion saying they would like to work less exceeds those saying the opposite. But perhaps asking people to say they want more work is like asking journalists to say they love deadlines. Of course deadlines cause stress. But they are a goad to productivity, which brings deep satisfaction.

Besides, the research on worker preferences can be interpreted variously. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that Britain and the US have higher numbers of people working more than 50 hours per week than the average advanced country. But the workaholic Anglo-Saxons also report higher life satisfaction. Norway, where long hours are uncommon, is also the OECD country where citizens grump most about their work-life balance. The OECD further reports that a strong predictor of an unhappy work-life balance is having children. Does this mean that parenthood is inimical to the good life? I doubt it.

If work were really so awful, people would presumably do less of it. The doubters retort that workers have no choice – either they feel they need the cash, or their bosses are inflexible on work hours. But neither hypothesis is persuasive. The best paid and best educated workers – those who could most easily forgo income and negotiate shorter work hours – freely choose to work harder than others. This is an inversion of Keynes's era, when the top of society worked fewer hours than the bottom.

The doubters must also reckon with women's revealed preferences. After all, women have tried living without paid work; they do not seem to have liked it. As cultural barriers have come down, they have voted with their feet. In the early 1960s, one in ten European women worked. Now more than seven in ten do. Nor is this primarily driven by necessity. As with men, it is the better paid and better educated women who work most. Jobs impart a sense of purpose, and social connections with colleagues. The financial income is certainly welcome, but the psychic income can be as valuable.

The Skidelskys are right that society values money too much, and they are right that the race to consume conspicuously cannot make society happier. But they have not persuaded me that professional effort is over-valued. After all, I have greatly enjoyed disagreeing with them.

The writer is is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an FT contributing editor

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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