The official working week is being reduced to 35 hours a week. In most countries in the world, it is limited to 45 hours a week. The trend during the last century seems to be less work, more play.
Yet, what may be true for blue-collar workers or state employees – is not necessarily so for white-collar employees. It is not rare for these people – lawyers, accountants, consultants, managers, academics – to put in 80 hour weeks. This trend is so widespread and its social consequences so known that it acquired the unflattering nickname workaholism, a combination of the words “work” and “alcoholism”. Family life is disrupted, intellectual horizons narrow, the consequences to the workaholic’s health are severe: fat, lack of exercise, stress take their toll. Classified as “alpha” types, workaholics suffer three times as many heart attacks as their peers.
But what are the social and economic roots of this phenomenon ?
Put briefly, it is the result of the blurring borders and differences between work and leisure. The distinction between these two types of time – the one dedicated to labor and the one spent in the pursuit of one’s interests – was so clear for thousands of years that its gradual disappearance is one of the most important and profound social changes in human history.
A host of other shifts in the character of the work and domestic environments of humans converged to produce this momentous change.
Arguably the most important was the increase in labor mobility in the workplace. The transitions from agricultural to industrial, then to the services and now to the information age.and knowledge societies, each, in turn, increased the mobility of the workforce. A farmer is the least mobile. His means of production are fixed, his produce was mostly consumed locally because of lack of proper refrigeration, preservation and transportation methods. A marginal group of people became nomad-traders. This group exploded in size with the advent of the industrial revolution. True, the bulk of the workforce was still immobile and affixed to the production floor. But raw materials and the finished products traveled long distances to faraway markets. Professional services were needed and the professional manager, the lawyer, the accountant, the consultant, the trader, the broker – all emerged as both the parasites of the production processes and the indispensable components to any enterprise.
Then came the services industry. Its protagonists were no longer geographically dependent. They rendered their services to a host of “employers” in a variety of ways and geographically spread. This trend accelerated today, at the beginning of the information and knowledge revolution. Knowledge is not locale-bound. It is easily transferable across boundaries. Its short-lived quality gives it a-temporal and non-spatial qualities. The location of the participants in the economic interactions of this new age are geographically transparent.
These trends converged with an increase of mobility of people, goods and data (voice, visual, textual and other). The twin revolutions of transportation and of telecommunications really reduced the world to a “global village”(Idea stolen from Mrs. Clinton). Phenomena like commuting to work and multinationals were first made possible. Facsimile messages, electronic mail, other modem data transfers, the Internet broke not only physical barriers, but also temporal ones. Today, virtual offices are not only spatially virtual, but also temporally so. This means that workers can collaborate not only across continents but also across time zones. They can leave their work for someone else to continue in an electronic mailbox, for instance.
These last technological advances precipitated the fragmentation of the very concepts of “work” and “workplace”. No longer the three Aristotelian dramatic unities. Work could be carried out in different places, not simultaneously, by workers who worked part time whenever it suited them best, Flextime and work from home are quickly replacing commuting as the preferred venue of the “workplace”. This fits exactly into the social fragmentation, which characterizes today’s world. The disintegration of previously cohesive social structures, such as the nuclear (not to mention the extended) family. This was all neatly wrapped in the ideology of individualism which was presented as a private case of capitalism and liberalism. People were encouraged to feel and behave as distinct, autonomous units.