Why Do We Work So Hard?

By Hugh Cunningham

Despite mid-twentieth-century forecasts of ever-increasing leisure time, we have instead seen the growth of a long hours culture. Below, Hugh Cunningham explores why the trend of declining hours of work from 1830 to the 1970s was not sustained. Is it time to question our contemporary valorisation of hard work?


Hard work carries a high value. Politicians on all sides appeal to “hard-working people”, implying that there is another contemptible set of people: idlers and scroungers. Hard work connotes not only intensity of work but also long hours of work. It’s possible that there is some residue of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic in this, the belief that hard work will be rewarded by God. But the reasons for our contemporary valuation of hard work probably lie nearer to hand than the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, forecasters of the future were confident that the hours people worked would decline and their hours of leisure would expand.  J. M. Keynes had set the tone, arguing in 1930 that he could foresee a time, and would welcome it, when work would be reduced to three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week. In the 1950s, it was reckoned that if married women entered the labour market after a period of child-rearing the working hours for both men and women could be reduced to six a day. From a similar angle in 1971, studying “dual-career families”, Rhona and Robert Rapoport were confident that a thirty-hour week “may be something like full time for many professions before long”.1 In the 1960s reputable forecasts were that, by 2000, working hours in industrialised countries would be no more than thirty hours for forty weeks in the year or might even be below one thousand hours a year.

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Diminishing Hours – Continuing Cutback or Mere Transitory Trend?

Why were these forecasters so confident that working hours would diminish? One factor, much stressed, was that robots would take over many routine procedures, freeing working people from the curse of repetitive toil. However, a look back in history lay at the roots of their optimism.  The industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century had undoubtedly seen an increase in hours of work, of the order of twenty per cent. By 1830 twelve hours of work were common – and frequently exceeded. But from the 1830s onwards the hours of work had declined, not year by year but in steps: the ten-hour day first; then nine hours in the 1870s; followed by eight hours in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Sunday had always been a day of rest; added to it in the second half of the nineteenth century was the Saturday half-holiday.  Annual holidays with pay had to wait until the twentieth century, but a week or two of holiday with pay was secured in the 1930s and 1940s.

There was ongoing change, too, in the place of work in the life cycle. The industrial revolution years had been scarred by child labour and at the other end of life there was no prospect of retirement. Children in the nineteenth century were taken out of paid work and sent to school – what some might regard as unpaid work.  Old Age Pensions, introduced in 1908, were insufficient in amount to allow a non-working life, but by the 1940s the first generation of retirees was beginning to adjust to a post-work life.  Forecasters saw no reason to suppose that this trend of declining hours, both in the years of work and before and after them, should not continue.

What had led to the decline in hours? One reason was legislation. The Factory Act of 1833, the first with any bite, had acknowledged that the strict precepts of political economy should not be applied to children or women in textile factories – a paternalistic state should offer them protection.  It was comforting to think that such legislation caused the decline in working hours. But there was another, more potent cause: agitation by trade unions.  Trade unions were at the forefront of campaigns to reduce hours, and most reductions were secured without legislation.  Looking back in 1923, the Trades Union Congress saw reduced hours as “the principal advantage secured by over sixty years of trade union effort and sacrifice … the most important achievement of industrial organization”.

There was one other important change. In the 1840s, a brave Preston textile manufacturer had tried an experiment: he reduced the hours of work at his factory and was able to report an increase in productivity. There was a reason for this and, for workers, a price to be paid: that of harder work on the job. As Karl Marx noted, “As soon as the working day has been legally restricted the intensification of labour … becomes much more marked”.2   For employers, it has to be said, the advantages of reduced hours was a lesson that had to be re-learned frequently, for example for munitions workers in the First World War; however, if learned, it made employers less reluctant to concede shorter hours. 

Under global competitive capitalism, labour conditions are likely to be driven downwards unless there are powerful trade unions to counteract that trend.


Miscalculations: the Decline of the Decline

We can now see that the mid-twentieth-century forecasters were mistaken. For complex reasons, mostly reflections of large-scale social changes, it is difficult to present a clear picture of changes in hours of work since the 1970s, but one thing is certain: the decline that started in the 1830s has ground to a halt and in certain cases been reversed. The major social changes affecting hours have been the decline of manual jobs as a proportion of all jobs (it used to be possible to take manual working hours as a proxy for all working hours) and the increase in women’s participation in the labour market, together with a corresponding increase in part-time work. More recent complicating factors have been the growth of self-employment (sometimes a disguise for underemployment), zero hours employment and the development of a “precariat”, whose members have to spend much time not only at work but also in increasing their employability.  All these factors introduce uncertainty into calculations of hours worked, but certain features stand out.

Long hours culture

The first is a rise in a long hours culture in some sectors of the economy. Perceptive analysts at the beginning of the twentieth century suggested that “the working class” was beginning to become a “leisure class”, and that those in managerial and professional jobs were working the longest hours. A century later, a 2008 survey revealed that eighty-nine per cent of managers worked over their contracted hours, effectively doing the equivalent of forty days a year in unpaid overtime. People in the top ten percent income group work thirteen hours more a week than those in the bottom ten per cent.

Unemployment and underemployment

Second, long and often growing hours of work coexist with another feature of the period since the mid-1970s – the rise and persistence of unemployment and underemployment. The “full employment” that William Bevervidge pressed for in the 1940s was close to a reality in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then some have worked too many hours, and many not at all or not enough – over three million workers in 2012 would have liked to work longer hours: mostly the young, women, and the low-skilled, those whose incomes are insufficient to meet basic needs.

Stress in the workplace

Third, there is strong evidence that long hours correlate with feelings of stress. Over the 1990s, the proportion of men reporting that they were “very happy” with their hours reduced from thirty per cent to twenty per cent and the proportion of women from fifty-one per cent to twenty-nine per cent, not least because nearly forty-six per cent of men and thirty-two per cent of women worked more hours than they were contracted for. In 1970 in the London region, only four per cent of married men working full-time cited “stress, worry, and overtiredness” at work as interfering with their home and family life. By the end of the century, three in five of those in employment said that the demands of their job interfered with their family lives, and one-fifth of British workers categorised their work as very or extremely stressful.

Fourth, the halt to the decline in hours worked has coincided with the reduction in the power of trade unions. This was the factor that the forecasters in the mid-century had not anticipated. The oil crisis of 1973 ushered in a new and much less optimistic period in the world economy. In Britain Margaret Thatcher, modeling her policy on Ronald Reagan’s USA where a free labour market had allowed much longer working hours, set out to reduce the power of the unions, achieved in the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984. The balance of power tipped from workers towards management, and restraints on increasing hours of work sharply diminished.

Work Outside the Workplace: the Dissolution of Leisure

“Flexibility” is a word that is often applied to the labour market. For employers, it denotes the absence of regulation of labour conditions of the kind that have accompanied the decline of trade unions and have allowed zero hours working to flourish. For employees, and in particular married women, it refers to attempts to mesh working hours with family responsibilities in pursuit of the much touted “work-life balance”. The “life” in work-life balance discourse is essentially unpaid work.  Leisure has disappeared: Julia Hobsbawm in The See-Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance makes no mention of it, though she does recommend five minutes a day of “me-time”.3

One voice in the 1970s stood apart from the confidence that leisure time would increase. In The Harried Leisure Class, Staffan Linder argued that time had become a scarce resource, people compensating for their lack of leisure time by spending heavily on it.4 “Free time”, argued Linder, was essentially “consumption time”, and there was no end to the amount that could be consumed in it. The pressure to be able to afford consumer goods meant that workers at the very least colluded in the trend towards longer working hours, hoping thereby to increase income. What Linder, like others, had not anticipated was that real wages would stagnate, if not fall, and that a free labour market would lead to a situation where many workers are on benefits because what they earn is insufficient to live on.

The “life” in work-life balance discourse is essentially unpaid work.


The Future of Work – Time to “Turn the Line of March”?

It is difficult to be optimistic about the future of work. Under global competitive capitalism, labour conditions are likely to be driven downwards unless there are powerful trade unions to counteract that trend. Hours of work are central to this: employers too easily forget that shorter hours can improve productivity (the UK’s low productivity is linked to long hours); and workers, when the cost of living rises faster than wages, try to compensate by working longer hours. Back in the 1970s, in The Symmetrical Family, Michael Young and Peter Willmott with considerable foresight described the world we now inhabit: “By the next century … society will have moved from (a) one demanding job for the wife and one for the husband, through (b) two demanding jobs for the wife and one for the husband, to (c) two demanding jobs for the wife and two for the husband … Instead of two jobs there will be four”.5  If, in consequence, they wrote, “people by their own hyper-activity threatened their own inner stability, they would slowly turn the line of march in another direction”.6   There are voices now suggesting that it is time to “turn the line of march”. Keynes’ vision of the future has been given a modern twist by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life.7 The New Economics Foundation, arguing a radical case for a twenty-one-hour working week, sees it as the only way to escape from a situation where “we live to work, work to earn, earn to consume”. More realistically, perhaps, Professor John Ashton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, proposes moving towards a four-day working week on health grounds, to relieve stress and to enable people to enjoy themselves more. In tune with this the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, the Mexican telecoms billionaire, has recently suggested a global three-day working week with twelve hours a day. A debate on the merits and demerits of hard work is opening up.


About the Author

Hugh Cunningham is Emeritus Professor of Social History at the University of Kent. His books include Leisure in the Industrial Revolution c.1780-c.1880 (1980), The Invention of Childhood (2006), and Time, Work and Leisure: Life Changes in England since 1700 (2014). He is currently working on the history of philanthropy.

1. Rhona Rapoport and Robert N. Rapoport. Dual-Career Families. (Penguin Books, 1971).
2. Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Trans., Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. (International Publishers, 1928), p. 435
3. Julia Hobsbawm. The See-Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance  (Atlantic Books, 2009).
4. Staffan Linder. The Harried Leisure Class. (Columbia University Press, 1970).
5. Michael Young and Peter Willmott.. The Symmetrical Family. (Pantheon Books, 1974), p. 278
6. Ibid., p. 282
7. Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky. How Much is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life. (Allen Lane, 2012).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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