Working time and careers

At the TUC conference last week, the General Secretary Frances O’Grady offered a striking  comparison, between the C19 struggle for the 8-hour day and what she sees as the equivalent struggle in this century – for a 4-day working week.  Some commentators felt that her ambition was a little modest, as she put the target date for achievement only as the end of the century.  But I think O’Grady is absolutely right to bring the issue of working time centre stage.  (I’m anyway a fan of hers for showing such leadership on the People’s Vote, but that’s another issue.  Well, actually, only partly another issue as the EU provides the best framework for achieving reductions in working hours on an international basis….)

Alongside the simple quantity – the number of hours worked – we need to think more about the distribution of those hours.  Not only what the working week actually looks like – are the days all clustered together, when do they start and finish and, crucially, who decides what the pattern of work is – but also how different distributions affect working careers:  how people progress or not at work.

Here Claer Barrett, the FT commentator, had a very interesting piece in the weekend’s paper (sorry, it’s firewalled).  She profiled a couple who both worked for an investment bank, in London.  They have two young children, and Mrs Banker went on to a 4-day week.  There are the predictable time pressures (including what one of my Paula Principle interviewees called the ‘hard stop’ – ie the need to leave the office on no account later than 5pm), and the out-of-hours work, especially dealing with emails from the US since that was where the bank is headquartered.   These are all manageable.

What has turned out not to be manageable is the blighting of her career.  Losing pay now is one thing; being permanently shifted to a lower career trajectory is quite another.  My guess is that it’s not only the money (including, as the piece makes clear, the pensions contribution gap, which over time mounts up very considerably).  It’s the sense that someone working fewer hours is seen as necessarily having lower aspirations.

And here’s the rub.  Mr Banker is reported as being very supportive, and even angrier than his wife at the blighting of her career.  But if he had wanted to be the one to opt for the 4-day week, my guess is that he would in the first place have had much more of a struggle to get it;  and secondly that the damage to his reputation as someone with ambition would have been far, far greater.  So my conclusion: it is only by more men working part-time that  the circle will be broken, so that women and men can depart from the full-time model without permanently depressing their career trajectories.  And the best way for this to happen is for us to force ourselves to think of careers in a more extended and messier way:  not an uninterrupted stretch of full-time work, but a collection of spells  of work of different dimensions – hopefully eventually taking shape as a mosaic that makes some kind of sense.

Crucially, the interruptions will not only be to do with young children.  Already eldercare is a major issue (and there’s no reason at all why men shouldn’t share this form of care equally).  But with longer working lives, more and more people will be interested in changing the balance at some stage – not necessarily a radical change, but a shift in the focus of their lives, so allow themselves to develop in different ways.  Often such changes will help people develop different skills – just as child-rearing and household management arguably increases work-relevant competences.  But we’re some way from having the reward systems that recognise this, or the welfare system that would enable it.  Values matter as much as the cash.

Frances O’Grady’s uplifting challenge is right on the nail.  But let’s place it firmly in that longer life course context.

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