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 unequivocal : less work, more play. Yet, what may be true for blue collar workers or state employees is not necessarily so for white collar members of the liberal professions. It is not rare for these people lawyers, accountants, consultants, managers, academics to put in 80 hour weeks.
The phenomenon is so widespread and its social consequences so damaging 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 workaholics 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 succinctly, 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 labour and the one spent in the pursuit of ones 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 labour mobility and the fluid nature of the very concept of work and the workplace.
The transitions from agricultural to industrial, then to the services and now to the information 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 travelled 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 oil on its cogs. 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 ephemeral 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. 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, Flexitime and work from home replaced commuting as the preferred venue (much moreso in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but they have always been the pioneering harbingers of change). This fitted squarely into the social fragmentation which characterizes todays 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. The perception of individuals as islands replaced the former perception of humans as cells in an organism. This trend was coupled with and enhanced by the unprecedented successive annual rises in productivity and increases in world trade. These trends were brought about by new management techniques, new production technology, innovative inventory control methods, automatization, robotization, plant modernization, telecommunications (which facilitates more efficient transfers of information), even new design concepts.
But productivity gains made humans redundant. No amount of retraining could cope with the incredible rate of technological change. The more technologically advanced the country the higher its structural unemployment (attributable to changes in the very structure of the market) went. In Western Europe, it shot up from 5-6% of the workforce to 9% in one decade. One way to manage this flood of ejected humans was to cut the workweek. Another was to support a large population of unemployed. The third, more tacit, way was to legitimize leisure time.
Whereas the Jewish and Protestant work ethics condemned idleness in the past they now started encouraging people to “self fulfil”, pursue habits and non-work related interests and express the whole of their personality. This served to blur the historical differences between work and leisure. They were both commended now by the mores of our time. Work became less and less structured and rigid formerly, the main feature of leisure time. Work could be pursued and to an ever growing extent, was pursued from home. The territorial separation between “work-place” and “home turf” was essentially eliminated.
The emotional leap was only a question of time. Historically, people went to work because they had to and all the rest was designated “pleasure”. Now, both were pleasure or torture or mixture. Some people began to enjoy their work so much that it fulfilled for them the functions normally reserved to leisure time. They are the workaholics. Others continued to hate work but felt disoriented in the new, leisure enriched environment. They were not qualified or trained to deal with excess time, lack of framework, no clear instructions what to do, when, with whom and to what.
Socialization processes and socialization agents (the State, parents, educators, employers) were not geared nor did they regard it as being their responsibility to train the populace to cope with free time and with the baffling and dazzling variety of options. Economies and markets can be classified using many criteria. Not the least of them is the work-leisure axis. Those societies and economies that maintain the old distinction between (hated) work and (liberating) leisure are doomed to perish or, at best, radically lag behind.
This is because they will not have developed a class of workaholics big enough to move the economy ahead. And this is the Big Lesson : it takes workaholics to create, maintain and expand capitalism. As opposed to common beliefs (held by the uninitiated) people, mostly, do not engage in business because they are looking for money (the classic profit motive). They do what they do because they like the Game of Business, its twists and turns, the brainstorming, the battle of brains, subjugating markets, the ups and downs, the excitement.
All this has nothing to do with pure money. It has everything to do with psychology. True, the meter by which success is measured in the world of money is money but very fast it is transformed into an abstract meter, akin to the monopoly money. It is a symbol of shrewdness, wit, foresight and insight. Workaholics identify business with pleasure. They are the embodiment of the pleasure principle. They make up the class of the entrepreneurs, the managers, the businessmen. They are the movers, the shakers, the pushers, the energy.
Without them, we have socialist economies, where everything belongs to everyone and, actually to none. In these economies of “collective ownership” people go to work because they have to, they try to avoid it, to sabotage the workplace, they harbour negative feelings. Slowly, they wither and die (professionally) because no one can live long in hatred and deceit. Joy is an essential ingredient. And this is the true meaning of capitalism : the abolition of work and leisure and the pursuit of both with the same zeal and satisfaction.
Above all, the (increasing) liberty to do it whenever, wherever, with whomever you choose. Unless and until the Homo East Europeansis changes his set of mind there will be no real transition. Because transition happens in the human mind much before it takes form in reality. It is no use to dictate, to legislate, to finance, to cajole, to offer the human being must change first. It was Marx (a devout non-capitalist) who said : it is consciousness that determines reality. How right was he. Witness the USA and witness the miserable failure of communism.