Thursday, 29 September 2016

What happened to the leisure generation?

Tis Saturday night, 11.35pm to be precise and I’m in my study, at home, finishing off a report that should have been submitted last week; so much for deadlines. And it’s not because I’m a lazy arse. To my left is a stack of papers and files that require my attention. Of course, I could do all this in my office at work but frankly I don’t have the time.

I remember many years ago (1972 to be precise) and very distinctly, Mr Knowles, our 5th form school’s Careers Advisor and woodwork teacher, explaining how we snotty 16 year olds would become the ‘leisure generation’. Life would entail working 15 to 20 hours a week; the rest of our time would be spent on endless hours of sublime leisure/pleasure. As snotty nosed kids we didn’t know any better and always believed our elders and betters to be the bearers of unsullied verity. Being of an awkward disposition, I asked: “Sir does this mean that I'll have to work 15 hours, EVERY BLOODY WEEK?” Mr Knowles frowned and replied: “Not you Flaxen, I can see your future very clearly. Only the dirtiest, hottest and smelliest jobs for you and a toil of 10 hours a day, 6 days a week is your allotted future”. As my first job after school was working in the local foundry he wasn’t far off the mark although I never did more than a 48 hour week, back then. Nowadays my foundry experience is way behind me but I still dream of a 48 hour week.

So what happened? Even back in 1930, the great economist, John Maynard Keynes predicted that in two generations the 15 hour week could be a realistic possibility. Few would have agreed during this period of deep economic depression but Keynes expected a dramatic recovery and a sustained improvement in living conditions for the majority. The post war boom tended to lend credence to the possibility of shorter working hours. The period from the 1950s until the early 1970s oversaw a massive increase in global production. It was noted by the American Sociologist, Max Kaplan in 1975, that a work week of 20 hours was attainable by the end of the century.

Much of this optimism was rooted in the fantastic pace of technological development. In the future, machines would do all the hard graft and workers would become overseers on short shifts. And because productivity would increase, in spite of shorter working hours, full pay would be maintained and even increased. Good times for all, well at least for the economically advanced nations. Does capitalism actually work this way?

With economic stagnation in the mid 70s came mass unemployment. Those in employment found their working week lengthening for the same pay. Periods of economic advancement since then have never been sustained. Why this is the case I have not the slightest idea. I am not an economist. Perhaps the 'baby boom' period was an economic aberration fuelled by war and clamouring demand in the aftermath?

What will the future bring? For me, surely retirement. And what about the prediction that machines will take over jobs so ultimately we end up working less? Yea, I honestly think we are entering this wondrous era. I can see it happening before my very eyes in professions allied to mine. My friend, an analytical biochemist, explained how the new machines recently fitted into his lab are changing the way they work. Basically blood is squirted into one port where it becomes partitioned and fed into a host of analysers. The lab needs someone to enter the patient details, someone to inject the sample and someone sitting at a screen viewing and sending results off to the referring doctors. No one is getting paid extra and the biochemists made redundant are going straight on the dole without any prospect of gaining work, at least in the profession they were trained for. How could the economic and social pundits have got it so wrong? Honestly, I don’t have the time to ponder such knotty problems. I still have to finish this bloody report by Sunday night. The title: The Impact of the New Technology on the Future of Analytic Genetics (arse).


  1. The extra productivity (which is quite real, btw), has been soaked up in three things:

    1. Regulatory overload; we now have rules for everything imaginable, manage processes and keep records which would simply have been impossible before the computer age (example: try getting a new drug approved).

    2. Loss of productive workers from the workforce; how big is the public sector now? 6 million, 7 million, more? Almost none of them are doing anything that adds real value.

    3. Vastly increased entitlements; drawing the old-age pension for thirty or forty years is all very nice, but somebody somewhere has to work to pay for it - and it sure as hell isn't an bureaucrat pushing paper about: the really productive people have to pay for them, too.

    1. You may well have a point, Sir. I am generally ignorant of economics, thus my posts on this complex matter remain opinion based with a great dollop of intuition. Not necessarily verity, itself.