The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century. This fight was – and remains – a quest for a broader ideal, namely the achievement of a life beyond work.
Yet, on this May bank holiday, we are struck by the lack of progress towards this ideal. Work has not diminished in society. Rather, it has continued to dominate our lives, often in ways that are detrimental to our health and well-being. Many US workers have found themselves working more than eight hours a day – the dream of working less promoted by their forebears has turned into a nightmare of long hours of work, for no extra pay. UK workers have not fared much better, at least in recent years, facing lower real pay for the same or longer hours of work.
The irony of course is that capitalism was supposed to offer something different. It was meant to offer a life of more leisure and free time. Technology was supposed to advance in ways that would bring bank holidays every month, possibly even every week. Luminaries like economist John Maynard Keynes dreamt of a 15-hour work week by 2030. Yet capitalism has produced the exact opposite. Its effect has been to preserve and extend work. It has also created problems in the content and meaning of work.
The circumstances are such that rather than idle away and enjoy our time off on bank holidays we are likely to spend it exhausted, stressed, and annoyed about a world that is less than what it can be.
Work’s not working
As an example of the problem of modern work, consider a recent report from the industry group, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). It showed how increasing numbers of workers are turning up for work while ill. They are displaying what is termed “presenteeism”. Of the more than 1,000 organisations that were surveyed, 86% reported workers attending work while ill. This number was up from 26% in 2010, when the survey was last undertaken.
The CIPD also found high numbers of workers prepared to work while on holiday. Work, it seems, extends to time when workers are neither paid nor physically at work.
One reason for this behaviour is the pervasive work ethic. The idea of work remains strong and prevents any hint of slacking off. The work ethic can reflect – in the case of some middle-class jobs – high intrinsic rewards, but it also reflects on societal norms and imperatives that privilege and sanctify work. Needless to say, these norms and imperatives suit the material interests of employers.