What is accepted as a full working week has changed a lot over the past few years. Friday night swill has been replaced by packed city bars on Thursday night, as hybrid workers clock in for their first or second day of the week at the office.
Come Friday, many workplaces are filled with nothing but the silence of unanswered emails, as more and more people work from home or even work a four-day week and retire before Friday.
As a nation, Australians no longer work the hours we used to, and the 40-hour week is now much less common.
However, this is not a new trend. Working hours have been decreasing – gradually – for a few hundred years. And thank God, because in the “good old days” the working hours were really horrible.
In 1830, the British government passed the Factories Act, which stated that children between the ages of 9 and 13 could not work more than 48 hours a week, while 13-18 year olds were not allowed to work more than 69 hours per week (with exceptions!). Working hours were limited to 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. for children under 13 and adults could work 15 hours a day (90 hours a week).
A few decades later, things started to change for the better. In Australia in 1856, stonemasons were fighting for – and winning – the right to an eight-hour day (however, stonemasons had much more bargaining power with their skills and therefore had much more to bargain for than children working in a factory. )
The factories were the scene of very long hours. The industrial revolution brought people who previously worked in the fields – and couldn’t work at night – and in doing so increased the hours of work. Interestingly, some have said that agriculture actually increased our hours of work and that the lowest working hours in history were even before the invention. of farming. Hunter-gatherers, they believe, only worked a few hours a day!
The downward trend in working hours is global, as shown in the following chart.
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The rise of flexible working can benefit society in particular because of its effect on one group in particular – women. Flexible working means that many women are able to have lifelong careers for the first time in history, thanks to the availability of part-time jobs and flexible hours and work locations. work mean that women can remain in contact with the workforce even at times when they are engaged in raising children.
However, this can be a double-edged sword, as some data has shown that women end up keeping more of their caring responsibilities AND working, so this model still needs work to be truly fair.
Does less hours just mean underemployment?
Falling working hours are only good news if people have enough work.
The good news is that underemployment is low now. After a sharp rise in 2020, Australia’s underemployment rate has fallen to levels we haven’t seen in over a decade. As the following graph shows, unemployment has barely been below this figure since the recession of the 1990s.
Professional life starts later and ends later now
We’ve come a long way since the 1800s, when children worked in factories. A few decades ago almost half of 15-19 year olds had a full-time job, today this is rare, with less than 20% of young people dropping out of school to work full-time. Likewise, a few decades ago, the average 60-64 year old man was retired and completely out of work, but that person is still working. Our professional lives evolve into later life as we pursue our studies. (A sign of a really tight job market would be if companies start hiring good people after a 3-year degree, or even straight out of high school!)
Work hard? Or barely work?
Any day, it’s not hard to find someone who complains about modern life. All this pollution, traffic and technology, and what do we have to show for it? The things you buy that fall apart the day after the warranty expires and house prices are on the rise around our ears.
This is all true, but where the progress is in the fact that we earn our standard of living with less and less effort. This means less work and more leisure. Or things that look a bit like hobbies, at least.
Men spend a lot more time with their children, for one thing. The time spent with the children has almost doubled. Many more men are not working at all these days – male labor force participation is declining. But even among working men, the average working time is falling, from 8 hours 36 minutes in 1992 to 8 hours 13 minutes a day in 2021.
In 1992 there were five television channels, probably only four of them could be received in your home, and a VCR to watch video tapes cost a week’s salary. You probably watched the same channel all night because there was no remote control. Despite this, Australians still watch 1 hour and 48 minutes of TV and video every day.
But it has increased a lot. Today we spend 2 hours and 55 minutes a day watching TV and videos. Thank goodness for Disney Plus and Netflix – they’re way better than Hey Hey It’s Saturday and Burke’s Backyard! Although this is just an audience statistic, it makes sense that the quality – and diversity – of our leisure activities will increase as people have more free time to spend.
And if the trends continue, we will have more and more free time to spend.
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