The long weekend: a chance to whine about prosperity

23 May

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.


Posted by on May 23, 2011 in health


2 responses to “The long weekend: a chance to whine about prosperity

  1. CraigB

    May 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    “Emancipation”? That’s a funny word for “always being at work”.

    Yes, many people aren’t working at desks anymore, but that means that they’re expected to always be available for work-related queries and tasks no matter where they are or what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they aren’t working; it just means that they can never truly leave work. A lot of people in a lot of careers work hours just as long as those old manufacturing workers did. You may assume that this is “beneficial”; but you have no more justification in that than the Globe did in assuming that people are working just as hard. Less, in fact.

    I think you’re also wrong in assuming that everybody has cushy deskbound jobs. People who HAVE cushy deskbound jobs tend to forget that, which is probably part of the reason why so many journalists and economists tend to be quite pleased with the idea of raising the retirement age. Even the “service sector” has a lot of jobs where you have to bust your hump. Everybody who doesn’t have that kind of job might very happy with the idea of a three day weekend.

    Aside from all that, why use 1999 as the comparison date? By definition, it has nothing to do with “working in the 21st century.” It doesn’t reflect how work has changed in the age of the smartphone, it doesn’t reflect the widening gap between rich and poor over the past decade, and it doesn’t reflect the collapse in wages that’s happened since the crash. 1999 was an interesting year, but a far different one than we have. Comparing manufacturing work in 1900 with all work in 1999 was already a sketchy comparison, but 1999 is a terrible comparative year in the first place.

    (Even the G&M article used 2005 for its comparison, which still isn’t perfect but is a far better choice.)

    Finally, where are women in this? Sure, first-world children are barred from most labor. We generally use children in the developing world instead. But while they aren’t working, their mothers generally are. The members of a household do far more paid work in 2011 than they did in 1900. Homemaking was never “leisure”, but it’s necessary no matter how much paid work you do. It means that the typical worker has to handle childrearing, home maintenance, and paid work at the same time. That’s no small amount of work, especially when you’re already bone-tired from one of those non-deskbound jobs.

    Sorry, but I’m not seeing how and why the Globe and Mail’s point is disproved here.

  2. petenowak2000

    May 23, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    George Jonas had an interesting take on a related topic in the runup to our recent election. He said that, against conventional wisdom, low voter turnout in many Western democracies is a sign that people are quite content with their lives and don’t really care who’s in charge. By that logic, if there were hordes of people upset with their work situation, we’d probably have higher voter turnouts:

%d bloggers like this: