It’s Victoria Day here in Canada, which means it’s a long weekend. Don’t be jealous Americans – Memorial Day is only one short week away.
There was some pretty big craziness and myth-spreading over the weekend, and I’m not talking about the ridiculousness that was the Rapture. I’m talking about an article in The Globe and Mail about how it’s time for society to make three-day weekends the norm. I have nothing against that idea, but there are significant problems with some of the arguments the writer made in favour of it.
Michael Posner writes:
In an age of high-tech efficiency and higher productivity, why isn’t the working world organized to provide us with more leisure time? The benefits – social, economic, ecological – would be legion. Certainly, we were promised it. For more than a century, a loud chorus of visionaries has lauded the fruits of science and technology, and the personal liberties they would confer.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Indeed, as they embark on their annual Victoria Day weekend – National Patriots Day in Quebec – Canadians (tethered to BlackBerries, laptops and iPads) are more likely to be struck by a grimmer calculus. Our so-called work-life balance has lost its equilibrium. Increasingly, we are logging longer hours. Increasingly, we have less time for recreational pursuits.
The article goes on to cite a number of studies showing that leisure time hasn’t really grown much and that productivity gains have been squandered. Many readers agreed with the story and commented on how it’s all a plot by corporations and the rich to keep the little guy down.
Yowza. How spoiled we are.
Common sense and a look at some real numbers from the 20th century handily disproves all this. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, children made up about 6% of the labour force in 1900. By 2000, of course, that number was zero. Per capita income at the turn of the 20th century was $4,200 in 1999 dollars, while at the end of the century it was $33,700. Benefits accounted for 1% of compensation in 1929, the first year measured, while by 1999 it was 27.5%.
Work hour improvements have proven tricky to measure given that proper statistics haven’t been kept by industries for long, but those that do exist show improvements. The average private sector work week in 1999, for example, was 34.5 hours – or 6.9 hours a day. A manufacturing job in 1900 – which would have been a very common occupation at the time – generally required 53 hours, or 10.6 a day. That’s a decrease of 34% – not too shabby.
Furthermore, what the numbers don’t show is the nature of that work. In 1900 a typical job involved back-breaking labour. In 1999, while it can be argued that the typical job was just as dreary, sitting behind a desk was considerably more comfortable. Indeed, people were far more likely to be killed or injured on the job in 1900 than in 1999. As the Bureau says: “Whether accidents are fatal or not, statistics indicate that they are less common, and the workplace is a much safer place, for the worker at the end of the century than at the beginning.”
To summarize: working in the 21st century is more comfortable, lucrative and safer than it was a hundred years ago, with the added bonus that most families don’t require children to help put food on the table. That has contributed to more affluence, longer life and better health over all. Indeed, this comfort is actually helping to making us fat and lazy as the move toward less physical jobs is considered a big factor in rising obesity levels.
The Bureau says a number of factors have improved working conditions, but the main one – naturally – was technology. Cars, computers and cellphones are just a few items in a long list of innovations that contributed to all of the above.
So how exactly have things not improved? Despite what the Globe article might suggest, answering an email on the BlackBerry while at the cottage is not a bad thing. Indeed, the emancipation that technology promised has in actuality arrived. The first shift saw workers move from difficult and potentially life-threatening labour to much cushier jobs. The next shift – the one we’re in now – is allowing people to break the chains that have traditionally bound them to desks. That might mean that some of those work hours shift over into what have traditionally been considered leisure hours and vice versa. The overall blend, I would think, is a beneficial one.
My advice: sit back and enjoy the long weekend and let other people whine about how good we have it.