Working hours: do Brits work the longest?
It’s a fairly common belief that the British are the long hours ‘champions’ of Europe (the commas are deliberately ironic – see below). This is usually seen to be partly the result of our opt-out from the European Working Time Directive. Some of those working very long hours are right at the bottom end of the wage hierarchy, and have to work massive overtime to make a living wage. At the other end are those who have committed themselves to the corporation body and perhaps soul, working all hours but for very high rewards.
Certainly in my field of adult education when people are asked about what stops them taking part in education or training, time is more often cited as a barrier than in any other EU country. But now along comes an analysis by Francis Green, Is Britain Such a Bad Place to Work?, which asks us to take a more nuanced view of our working hours. Green is very severe on those who perpetuate what he calls the myth that the British work the longest hours. It is true only of male full-time workers; when you take all workers into account, the British rank only 23rd.
Green criticises those who uphold the long-hours myth for empirical slackness, but also because in his view it represents a sexist view of work, by focussing only on male full-timers. Most of me agrees with this position – quite emphatically so in the sense that I believe part-time workers are heavily penalised, and that this leads to a major waste of competence, mainly female. So the argument that it is wrong to treat full-time men as if they stand for all workers is completely correct.
Why then do I say only that I ‘mostly’ agree with Green’s? Precisely because the fact of the exceptionally long hours worked by British men is such a crucial determinant of how we think about work, and working arrangements. Until this changes, the chances are slim of giving part-timers due recognition, and due opportunity to pursue fulfilling careers appropriate to their competences. So I think we need to keep that exceptionalism well to the front of the debate, and not hide it away under overall averages.