Nowadays we do a lot of work when we come home from work. Yet our outdated statistics don’t record any of it
Every age has its silliness about what constitutes work, but ours may be the silliest. Britannia Unchained, a book by a group of Tory MPs that will be published before the Conservative party conference in October, is further evidence: the British, it claims, are “the worst idlers in the world“. But the problem is not with the British work ethic, but with the changing nature of work.
The economist Arthur Pigou once said that if he hired a housekeeper, national income and employment went up, whereas if he married her and she did the same work, they went down. That aphorism still applies: labour statistics still disregard all the work done mainly by women. But women’s work is not the only kind of work that does not show up in the employment statistics released last week, based as they are on concepts developed in the industrial 1940s.
For one, we are all doing a lot more work outside formal workplaces: completing tasks that cannot be done in paid hours, or doing our best to remain “competitive” and up-to-date. Human resource gurus say everybody should devote 15% of their time every year to retraining – unpaid, of course. Then there is all the work we must do to manage our complex lives, including our financial dealings with the state, as well as care for children and elderly relatives.
The social group that is most affected by this kind of work is also known as the “precariat”: they live and work insecurely, flitting between short-term dead-end jobs, without an occupational identity or opportunity to develop themselves. Many are overqualified for the jobs they are expected to take. They must be flexible, at the beck and call of employers and state agents or their privatised surrogates.
Retraining for the precariat is stressful and demoralising; often they learn new tricks only to find them obsolescent or unwanted. In financial affairs and dealings with the state, those in the precariat are disadvantaged since they are usually less well-informed and have to do much more to satisfy demands made on them if they want to gain meagre state benefits.
Successive governments in the UK have worked to create a more flexible labour market, which also meant labour insecurity. They allowed wages to drop and non-wage benefits to shrivel, creating worse inequality than statistics reveal. For all of us, work and labour are increasingly continuous, and not done in fixed places at fixed times only. We are bombarded by work demands on our time. Again the precariat is especially disadvantaged. For example, many of them spend untold, unpaid time “waiting around” – witness the spread of oxymoronic “zero-hours” employment contracts, under which employees must be ready at any moment to work.
Worst of all has been the government’s shift to means testing, which means the precariat face marginal tax rates of over 80% as they lose benefits from taking low-paying jobs. Politicians regard 40% as too high for the squeezed middle and the affluent. This erodes incentives at the lower end of the labour market, leading to a vicious circle of falling wages, as well as lower and more conditional benefits, and to workfare. The well-known poverty trap is compounded by what should be called a precarity trap. Because benefits are harder to obtain due to growing conditionality and intrusive monitoring, claimants can wait weeks or months before obtaining them, often doing a lot of work to do so. Suppose, once they have gained entitlement, they are offered a menial job paying low wages. On top of the poverty trap, they face a high probability of soon being back in the queue to obtain benefit entitlement all over again. After a few months they could be worse off than before they took the job. Is refusing such jobs a sign of idleness? No, it’s the fault of the policies.
The folly of means testing and the inevitable trend to workfare is combined with the folly of tax credits and employment subsidies, designed to create the kind of “youth jobs” or “German-style mini-jobs” that the government is currently considering. Research suggests these are expensive and ineffective, a licence to labour inefficiency and low wages, with huge substitution and deadweight effects.
Meanwhile, we suffer from too much work. A recent report showed that many Britons experience sleep deprivation due to excessive work done away from the workplace. What we need is a slow time movement to gain control over time, and an overhaul of work statistics to give a better perspective on all the work being done, and how much of it is undesirable, unnecessary and demeaning.