The Trend Towards Longer Work Days: No End in Sight
- Length: 1310 words (3.7 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
One of the most common conceptions of the East Asian people and the East Asian way of life is their undeniably strong work ethic. Many people in the West believe that Asians are probably the most hardworking people on Earth . Many facts, including most of the available official statistics, support the view that Asians do indeed work longer weeks than Europeans. A Singaporean, working for a private company with at least 25 employees, worked 47.1 hours on average in 1995, plus 4.6 hours of overtime (Department of Statistics, Singapore). Compare that to the average working time for a Swede, who works 34.1 hours per week (SCB Statistics Sweden). The average Japanese factory worker worked for a total of 2124 hours in 1990, compared to 1683 hours for a French worker (Japan External Trade Organisation, JETRO).
The most obvious answer to this question is Confucianism. Confucian-based societies in Asia have during the recent decades been characterized by rapid economic growth. "[Confucian] values permeate all of Asia, not just the Chinese part of it" (Rohwer). Diligence is one of the basic values of Confucianism, together with perseverance, moderation and education. In the Confucian model, the society is based on authority and unequal relationships between people: father and son, master and servant, husband and wife, etc. In this society, someone always has authority over someone else's life. Confucianism is also very elitist - a person does not have to understand it, but he does have to follow it in order to maintain the stability in society (more about Confucianism can be learnt from Encyclopedia Britannica). Because of this, hard work has always been a virtue in a Confucian society. If a person living in a Confucian society did not consider work being a virtue, the model made sure that someone else, the "top-half" of the unequal relationship, reminded the "lazy" person and made sure he or she would return to the right path. This top-down style is further strengthened by the strong role the family has in the system. A person is to a greater extent considered being a part of a family, rather than an individual. All this fortifies the incentives to work hard. The Confucian system, when applied to the extreme, does not give anyone a choice of choosing another way of life.
If you are born into the system you are bound to work hard either because of the values themselves or by the power of someone who reinforce those values. The Confucian virtues in themselves may be bad or good, and when regarding the work ethic they resemble Lutheran virtues, but the other part of the system, the unequal relationship, reinforces a master and slave tradition in the Confucian societies. Are we sure that, if given a free choice (if such a thing really exists), people in Asia would not look for other virtues than hard work itself? Also people in Asia may work as hard as they do because they have to survie.
Technology was supposed to bring in an era of shorter work hours and an era of increased leisure time this has not come about, the reverse seems to be true. Increases in technology have made it possible to do more with fewer workers. I'm not convinced that increased productivity and shorter work hours are really closely connected. My problem is that I don't see management's motivation for allowing it. If some technology allows a company to make more product faster and cheaper, the idea of just letting everybody go home earlier seems to be the least realistic option. Since you now have a bigger supply to sell, you can move into new markets, cut your price and try to gain market share, or just cut jobs and increase profit margins or shift that money/jobs into other areas of the corporation. All of these options seem to have bigger benefits to the corporation itself than just letting people out of work early. Shorter working hours and job-sharing arrangements can be suggested instead of flat-out layoffs (and have been), but the benefit to management is still a lower payroll, i.e. individual pay cuts. If the employer allows telecommuting, part of the benefit is a decreased need for the employer to provide physical space. On the other hand, if I could telecommute to my current job, I could save almost 2 hours a day just in commute time, which is a benefit to me without affecting my employer at all. Technological options that allow different work structures (without necessarily affecting the total amount of time worked) seem more realistic to me. But a whole lot of the economy is still based on moving atoms, and people are still going to have to keep going to centralized points for processing those atoms. There's also the element to which technology may help small businesses. Unfortunately, while there are a lot of benefits to be seen here, small businesses seem to demand more time, not less (in my very
limited experience). Until there is increased profits to be made by having workers, work fewer hours, the trend towards more work hours is here to stay.
In response to trends in our current work in the past few years, there seems to have been a resurgence of a way of thinking that has been termed "Voluntary Simplicity". Possibly this resurgence is a consequence of the overspending and consumerism of our society in addition to the increase in the workweek. While the ideas of cutting back on spending -- or "consumerism" -- to the bare bones, making things last longer, and getting the necessities as cheaply as possible are by no means new -- undoubtedly they have been around for numerous decades -- the terminology of Voluntary Simplicity (VS) probably became popular during the 1970's.
This resurgence of this movement comes at a time when consumer debt is at it's highest. The following information was taken from the March 31, 1998 edition of the Economic Advertiser:
- Consumer debt has soared 41 percent in the last five years and now exceeds $1.2 trillion.
- Personal bankruptcies rose by 6 percent to 832,415 by mid-1997 from the prior-year period.
- Consumer loans comprised 45 percent of bank lending in 1997, up from around 33 percent 10 years ago.
- Nearly 4.25 percent of credit card loans were written off as losses late last year, up from 3.8 percent a year earlier.
- Credit card issuers send a record 2.4 million card offers to consumer in 1997, more than double the mailings sent in 1990.
- About 376 million Visas and MasterCards were in circulation as of last fall, up 80 percent from five years earlier.
- The average household now has four credit cards with balances of around $6,800, up from two cards and $2,340 in balances five years ago.
- Consumers owe $360 billion on their cards, double the 1990 level.
The VS movement, is viewed by most as the trend toward less clutter in their lives, whether by choice, necessity, or habit. People who have joined the simplicity movement have decided that they will get by with less so that they will have more time.
In conclusion as the advances in technology have not brought about increases in more leisure for most people. The increase in technology has had the effect of being able to produce more with less workers, but people are working more hours a day not less. In response to the work hours of modern life and consumerism some people are voluntarily living with less. Will the future be one that resembles the early industrial revolution of working every waking moment? Or will the future resemble science fiction where we have machines do every thing so we can pursue or own pursuits. Until business have a stake in shorter work hours i.e. increased profits I do not believe the trend towards longer work days will reverse any time soon.