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Lifetime piling up: how many hours will you work?

It may surprise you to learn that things haven't changed much in 70 years.
Lifetime piling up: how many hours will you work?
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi / Unsplash

How many hours do you expect to work in your lifetime? 

This may sound like a meaningless question, yet it is far from irrelevant. 

The answer to the question sheds a great deal of light on what is happening to the world of work in general. It also suggests the shape of your probably personal future working life.

In his book, The Age of Unreason, Charles Handy writes that for his generation, that is people who started their working lives in the 1950s, the average work life expectancy was around 100,000 hours. 

Handy reached this figure because he says the average Northern European working the 1950s was expected to put in 47 hours of paid work and paid or unpaid overtime each week. 

In those days, people could expect to have around five weeks paid holiday each year, making a working year of 47 weeks. Back then Northern European professional workers could expect to enjoy more or less full employment from leaving school at roughly 18 years until retirement at 65. Give or take a few per cent this works out at a total of 100,000 hours of work.

Rapid changes in European employment

By the time Handy wrote his book in the mid-1980s, the European employment scene had changed. We won’t go into all the arguments here – Handy’s book is worth reading if you haven’t already discovered it. He argues that by the 1980s the time a Northern European man could expect to spend in the core workforce had reduced to some 50,000 hours over a lifetime.

He found that the amount of annual work leave remained at roughly 47 weeks. At the time most European professionals were expected to work in the region of 45 hours a week. 

Although by the 1980s people were no longer expected to show up at the office on a Saturday morning, the average working day was longer. 

Unpaid overtime becomes the norm

By the 1980s, fewer professionals were paid overtime. All the hours in excess of the 38 to 40 hours normally quoted in contracts would be unpaid overtime.

The biggest difference came in the total number of years worked. Skilled workers, especially professionals, not only required a first university degree, but increasingly employers were asking for a vocational qualification as well.

Things vary from country to country, but on the whole 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.

In fact, Handy argues that the pressure and stress of work meant few people in the ‘core’ workforce would want to stay in their jobs much past their 50th birthday. 

Calculate the numbers and you’ll see how Handy reached his estimate of 50,000 hours (roughly 25 years by 47 weeks by 45 hours).

Not as easy as it looks

At first sight you might imagine this means the 1980s workforce had it easy compared with their fathers (that’s not sexist face it, statistically speaking not many mothers married to professional men worked during the 1950s). It would have been easy if the world stayed as it was during the early 1980s.

But the world didn’t stay like that for long. Today we could take another look at Handy’s numbers and reach a very different conclusion.

First, the length of the practical working life has been truncated again. While many knowledge workers can continue in full employment well into their sixth or seventh decade, few core employers want workers much past their mid-40s.

 In other words, the period you can expect to stay in the core workforce has been reduced to around 20 years, roughly from the age of 25 to 45. 

It’s true many people find work outside the core workforce as freelancers or contractors. Here we’re focused on formal employment. 

Working longer hours

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 is turning in around 47 hours, often with no overtime payment. Things are more or less the same in New Zealand. 

This figure is for all workers. I can’t find hard and fast statistics, but there are still plenty of unionised jobs where the actual working week is kept in the 37 to 40 hour range. 

Which 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. And as this 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 that few knowledge workers get to have any real holiday any more. Although many jobs have a nominal amount of annual leave, in practice few people ever get to take all their leave. 

In my last formal 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. I know from talking to people that this is commonplace – most people move jobs fairly regularly so they collect unused holiday pay as a cash payment.

In some cases people don’t take leave because they are worried that things might happen in their absence. Others worry that by not being in place, their bosses might realise they are disposable.

Lack of cover

More commonly the pressure of work and thin staffing levels means that people simply can’t get adequate cover to take time off.

Despite this, most people 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, most people are cramming the same amount of working hours into a shorter number of years.

There are two major 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 people had to work at learning in the 1970s and early 80s, but people had the luxury of choosing courses that were inherently interesting rather than feel pressured to choose those courses that lead more directly to a career.

It’s one thing to study when the subject matter is fascinating, it’s another thing to plough through dry vocational course matter. Furthermore, educational resources are stretched and there’s less money for students. Consequently many people have to slave at minimum wage jobs while studying just to pay the rent and put food on the table. 

It is no picnic. 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 postgrad course that could be a total of 16,000 hours devoted to the educational system.

Second, although people in the core workforce are better paid than in the past, higher tax rates and higher costs associated with working and getting educated mean that few people can earn enough during their more productive years to take them through the rest of their lives. 

In other words, most knowledge workers need to work long past their use-by date. Do the sums and you’ll see today’s knowledge workers can expect to spend at least 100,000 hours at work.

That’s pretty much the same as people faced in the 1950s.