15 September 2007


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 August 2007

What did you do this summer? I spent the Saturday on the beach at Felixstowe and the Sunday working.

OK, weak joke – but it’s true. So far in Suffolk we’ve had just one weekend of temperatures soaring into the 80s (that’s above 27C for younger readers) and not a single day to prompt the East Anglian Daily Times to run a “Phew! What a scorcher!” headline. Just about the only thing to feel smug about is that it hasn’t been quite as wet here as it has Yorkshire and Middle England.

But the worst of it is that I spent one of the two properly sunny days we’ve had stuck in an office staring at a screen. Ever since I left university, I’ve had a vague sense every year that I’ve missed half the summer working – and this year I know I have.

To which you might reply: “Stop whingeing” – and you’d have a point. What I do for a living is hardly onerous: I’m an academic and journalist, which means that I spend summer marking exams, preparing lectures, doing odd newspaper shifts, grinding through dull academic administration et cetera. And it’s partly my own stupid fault that I do as much work as I do. If I organised my time better, if I delegated more, if I switched off the mobile phone, if I said “no” more often, I’d get a lot more time off.

The thing is, though, that I currently just want it to stop – and it never does. Twenty years ago I had academic friends who seemed to spend a good 10 or 12 weeks every summer away from the office in the library doing research or in the south of France dossing about, and the main reason I went for an academic job seven years ago was that I wanted a bit of the same. In my dreams!

The truth is that I’ve never seen work as a massively good thing. When I was an anarchist student, I was very impressed by various Italian and French Marxist theorists who saw a growing “refusal of work” on the part of the proletariat as prefiguring the revolutionary transcendence of capital – and although that particularly daft idea lost its appeal for me not long after the grant cheques stopped coming, I’ve never reconciled myself to the idea that work is anything but a more or less unpleasant necessity.

My favourite work of classical Marxism remains The Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in -law, first published in 1883, with its ringing declaration: “In capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy.” And the one public pronouncement by US President Ronald Reagan with which I have some sympathy is his gag: “It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

Now, I know this line of argument winds up a lot of Tribune readers. Last time I used it the paper got lots of angry letters, most of them arguing that I wouldn’t have such an anti-work attitude if I’d ever tasted serious unemployment. Fair enough: if there’s one thing worse than the tedium of wage labour, it’s being involuntarily deprived of it and condemned to hopeless poverty. I’d accept, too, that some sorts of work, in moderate quantities, can be genuinely fulfilling.

But, leaving aside the fact that many if not most jobs are anything but fulfilling, you can have too much of any job – and most of us in Britain do. We work some of the longest hours in Europe and take the fewest days holiday. We commute longer distances than anyone else and suffer more work-stress-related disease.

Why? The main reason is that we need the money. Particularly in southern England but increasingly elsewhere, housing is prohibitively expensive. There is a shocking shortage of social housing, private rented housing is a gigantic rip-off, and the extraordinary inflation of house prices has put first-time buying beyond the reach of all but workaholics on fat salaries and the offspring of rich parents. And once you’ve managed to get somewhere to live at exorbitant cost – almost certainly miles from where you work -- you’ve then got to add the punitive costs of commuting and child care and all the rest.

Building more affordable homes, particularly in the south-east, as promised by Gordon Brown as he became prime minister, is part of the solution, but it will not be enough on its own. We also need faster and cheaper commuting, incentives to encourage companies to introduce electronic homeworking, more public holidays and enhanced rights for workers to allow them to resist employers’ demands for overtime and to reduce their own working hours as they choose. Oh, and summers that last more than a weekend so we can enjoy our more leisurely lives. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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