In The Age of Unreason, Charles Handy says his generation, who started work in the 1950s, could expect to work around 100,000 hours during their lives.
Handy says in the 1950s employers expected the average Northern European to put in 47 hours of paid work and paid or unpaid overtime each week. Workers got five weeks paid holiday each year, making a working year of 47 weeks.
Northern European professional workers could expect to enjoy full employment from leaving school at 18 years until retirement at 65.
Give or take rounding errors this works out at 100,000 hours.
Rapid changes in European employment
European employment changed by the mid-1980s. Then a person could expect to spend around 50,000 hours in the core workforce.
They still worked 47 weeks a year. The week was a little shorter at 45 hours.
Although employees were no longer expected to show up at the office on a Saturday morning, the average working day was longer.
In the 1980s, few professionals were paid overtime. The hours in excess of the 38 to 40 hours normally quoted in contracts were unpaid overtime.
The big difference came in the number of years worked. Skilled workers and professionals not only required a first university degree, but increasingly employers asked for a vocational qualification as well.
Things vary from country to country, but in the mid-1980s young European knowledge workers didn’t enter the workforce much before their early 20s. At the same time, the trend towards early retirement meant that few professionals worked past the age of 55.
Handy argues the pressure and stress of work meant few in the core workforce would want to stay in their jobs past their 50th birthday. Handy’s estimate of 50,000 hours is roughly 25 years by 47 weeks by 45 hours.
Workers didn’t have it easy
You might imagine this means the 1980s workforce had it easy compared with their fathers. That’s not sexist, statistically speaking not many mothers married to professional men worked during in the 1950s.
Today we can look at Handy’s numbers and reach a different conclusion.
The length of the working life is even shorter. While many knowledge workers can continue in full employment well into their sixth or seventh decade, few employers want workers hanging around their offices much past their mid-40s.
In other words, the period you can expect to stay in the core workforce is now around 20 years, roughly from the age of 25 to 45.
The working week has stretched back again. Our fathers may have fought for the right to a 40-hour week, but today’s average Australian full-time employee turns in 47 hours, usually with no overtime payment. New Zealand is similar.
This figure is for all workers. There are still unionised jobs where the working week is kept in the 37 to 40 hour range. This means many knowledge workers average more than 47 hours.
For the sake of argument (and easy arithmetic) we’ll assume a 50-hour week is normal in Australia.
As a Department of Labour report shows, if anything, New Zealand knowledge workers put in an even longer working week — and with fewer leave days.
Holidays are history
Perhaps the most disturbing trend is reduced holidays. Although jobs have a nominal amount of annual leave, in practice few workers take all their leave.
In my last job I had four weeks leave a year, when I left after two years I was paid six weeks salary in lieu of unused holiday.
This is common — people trade unused holiday for cash when moving between jobs.
In some cases people don’t take leave because they worry things might happen in their absence.
Others worry that by not being in place, their bosses might realise they are disposable. More commonly the pressure of work and thin staffing levels means that people can’t get adequate cover to take time off.
Despite this, most workers manage to grab a week or so around Christmas and a few days break here and there. Typically a modern Australian or New Zealand knowledge worker might enjoy the arithmetically convenient total of two weeks leave, or a working year of 50 weeks.
That gives us a total of 50 by 50 by 20 or 50,000 hours. In other words, we cram the same number of working hours into fewer years.
There are two differences between the modern working life and the situation that Handy described in the 1980s.
Higher education is no picnic
First, today’s higher education is no picnic. Sure students had to work at learning in the 1970s and early 80s, but they had the luxury of choosing courses that were interesting, not those leading directly to a career.
It is one thing to study when the subject is fascinating, it is another thing to plough through dry vocational courses.
Furthermore, educational resources are stretched and there’s less money for students. This means many slave at minimal wage jobs while studying.
Any calculation of lifetime working hours should add around 48 hours a week for a 48 week year for each year spent in higher education. If you take a first degree and a vocational postgraduate course that could be a total of 16,000 hours devoted to the educational system.
Second, although the core workforce is better paid than in the past, higher tax rates and higher costs associated with working and getting educated mean that few earn enough during their more productive years to take them through the rest of their lives.
In other words, knowledge workers need to work long past their use-by date. You can cut the numbers how you like, but each way I do the calculations I reach the same conclusion: today’s knowledge workers can expect to spend at least 100,000 hours at work.
That’s pretty much the same as workers faced in the 1950s.