Work 'til you drop – the media on work

 

Although newspaper columnists often question the long-hours work culture (see below for an example), the general picture presented in the media is of a business leadership that is "forward-looking" and "responsive" to employees' needs for free time.

But this directly contradicts the reality of steadily increasing working hours since the 1970s (eg see: UK Labour Force Survey, Historical Supplement and Quarterly Supplement, Autumn 1999). The UK government has admitted a "sharp increase" in excessive working hours. DTI research found that 1 in 6 employees now work more than 60 hours a week. Full-time employees in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. (Sources: Guardian, 30 Aug 2002; TUC, tuc.org.uk).

The contradiction between the media's "forward-looking" characterisation of UK business chiefs, and the distinctly backward reality, can perhaps be attributed to propaganda campaigns by industry-financed PR organisations. Well-funded groups such as the Institute of Directors have for years attempted to counter perceptions of increasingly long working hours. The issue is instead framed in terms of "pioneering" and "visionary" measures by leading companies, ushering in a "civilised and flexible" working environment (the media mostly laps this up with little scepticism).

Pioneering? Visionary? Apparently business PR groups are ignorant of history. We've been here before. For example, in 1933, the US Senate was close to passing a bill for a 30-hour week. The legislation seemed assured... until President Roosevelt, joined by the nation's captains of industry, squashed it.

In the atmosphere of expectancy of a shorter working week, W.K. Kellogg, in 1935, introduced a scheme to cut 2 hours from the working day, yet pay the same wages. Apparently this succeeded – a report from Kellogg claimed:

"This isn't just a theory with us. We have proved it with five years of experience. We have found that with the shorter working day, the efficiency and morale of our employees is so increased, the accident and insurance rates are so improved, that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight".

Today's business leaders are so "pioneering" and "visionary" that they've overseen a work environment in which working hours, on average, have risen since the 1970s – despite the growing ubiquity of labour-saving technology over the same period.

Mostly, the media see no irony in the representation of business chiefs as "forward-thinking" and "visionary". Although, as we noted above, there are signs of dissent among some newspaper columnists:

[From the Guardian, 9/6/2001]: "Despite the propaganda, work is far worse than it used to be, which is why people are much less happy than they used to be"... "It is an example of capitalism's black-hearted humour that, as all their rights are decimated, workers must smile, smile, smile! Then there's the lying, which is now endemic among employers; a friend of mine applied the other day for a job which promised 'dynamic work with a rock 'n' roll attitude'. Well, there are many ways to describe the task of knocking on doors trying to flog double-glazing, but I don't think that's one of them."