Monday, 29 August 2022


This question is in Britannia Unchained in 2012, written by, amongst others, Liz Truss. 

Britannia Unchained : Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity

More fully it said: 

Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor…. Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.

Oh dear. This is an ill researched cartoon. We work longer hours than nearly every country in Europe and retire later. “Worst idlers” is such an old-fashioned term. Successful people I know are idle but smart – they get other people to do the work for them. What’s more current thinking by a Silicon Valley consultant, amongst others, suggests that productivity would be improved by lower, not higher hours.

Shorter: How smart companies work less, embrace flexibility and boost  productivity: Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim: 9780241406786: Books

Britannia Unchained feels so out of touch with the reality of today’s world. Had the writer been to China where at 12.30 every day the lights are turned low for an hour and everyone goes to sleep? Had they watched Chinese at work? 

China Factory Workers Encouraged to Sleep on the Job

The same applies to India where workmen often work in slow motion. Of course, there are showcase examples of speed of construction in China – a multi-storey hotel being erected in a few weeks but health-and-safety doesn’t seem to figure high on their agenda. “996”, the so called Chinese work ethic – 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week  - which the authors of “Britannia Unchained” might presumably have espoused -  was put unfavourably under the spotlight in February this year when a 25-year-old content moderator for short-video streaming site Bilibili died of brain haemorrhage after working extreme hours. The company called it a “wake-up call.”

A friend of mine who’s a corporate lawyer working possibly 70 hours a week on average has worked in Japan and China and thinks it is not that the British are idle, not at all, it is they are a bit “soft”, a softness engendered from us having had it rather easier than the previous generations (up to now). 

The huge salaries some earn are generally the result of working extraordinarily hard (read the story of Bill Gates’ youth). Often at the top of the wage pyramid great wealth, poor health, long hours, burn-out.

Note to CEOs: Don't Let Depression Get in the Way of Your Success |  IndustryWeek

Generally at the bottom of that pyramid, terrible wages, poor health, maybe doing several jobs to pay the bills and very long hours. These poor people are not idlers, they’re exploited and have got by so far through being work machines.

But I’m like anyone writing on this subject liable to lapse into generalisations so let me take a step back. Our world is unrecognisable from that of just 10 years ago. We are just beginning to grasp the opportunities of technology like AI and are struggling to grapple with the problems and challenges it will create. The current strikes across the public sector are caused as much by a realisation that a radical change of working practices is imminent as they are about rates of pay.

No ASLEF rail strike set for 29th July 2022 as fight for pay rises continues

I believe most people prefer working hard than having too little to do. I believe most people want to do a good job. I believe most people want a decent job.

We need to spend time working on a strategy for the future of work and remove the word redundancy from our lexicon. Work is changing. We need to explain why and how that can benefit us rather than enforce people to be unemployed or unemployable.

We need to work, not just for money but to feel we are relevant and to give us self-respect.

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