Much of the debate in the UK about work is conducted based on a simple minded distinction between work and non work. People imply that work is going to a place of employment in return for wages. Everything else the person does is non work. If someone spends too much time doing paid work he or she will be told to “get a life”, “spend more time with their family”, “take some time off” etc.
This type of thinking can cause people not to enjoy much or anything of their time at paid work. It muddles up the rest of a person’s time with leisure and pleasure, when much of it may not be pleasurably spent. It often assumes that all paid for work is hard and undesirable from the point of view of the employee, a necessary evil or interruption to their private lives.
It is probably better to think of four main chunks of time we have. There is time spent on work for pay. There is time spent on work without pay to look after our homes and families. There is leisure time. Then there is chill out, relaxing and sleep time, when we do very little at home.
I am particularly interested in the first two periods of time, paid for work time and unpaid work time. Some people think it better to do more paid for work, so they can hire in more help with the household work. If you earn enough you can pay someone else to undertake child care, pay the supermarket and food industry to prepare your meals and bake your cakes, employ a cleaner, window cleaner, house maintenance people and the rest. You end up paying a lot more tax doing this, as you have to pay extra income tax on your higher earnings for daring to work more, and then VAT and other taxes on the bought in goods and services.
Buying in help is not just the preserve of the rich. Every household does it to some extent. Low income households do not usually hire a cleaner, but they often buy lots of prepared food rather than peeling the vegetables and making the soup themselves. Some mothers buy disposable nappies even when they have modest income because they prefer not to wash textile ones. An elderly person on a small income may have to pay a decorator to repaint the living room. Most people hire plumbers or electricians to fix problems.
It is difficult to judge how much time people in practice spend working. The idea that we should be able to finish with work after a 37 to 40 hour working week full time job is silly. Most people have to put in many more hours preparing meals, hoovering carpets, washing floors, making beds and doing odd jobs. Some have to weed the garden as well. The interesting question is the choices make about the split between the amount of unpaid work they are willing to do, and the amount of paid work they wish to do to give them more choices over the domestic chores.
One of the features of our economic growth figures is the economy appears to expand if more people decide to work more and earn more, so they can spend more on help for the home. At times of retrenchment more work is done unpaid, as people have to do more themselves because they have lost bonuses or overtime, or even lost their jobs. Some of these changes make little difference to what work is done, but they change who does it.
Some seem to think that for most people the only option is to undertake just one full time job, and then make the family budget work around that. The amount you have to do unpaid is simply forced upon you by the adequacy or inadequacy of your pay relative to your domestic wishes. As we will see tomorrow, more people have more choices than this way of looking at it suggests.
It is also wrong to say that all paid for work is done because you have to rather than because you want to. Many people now do have jobs they like, or have jobs with features that they enjoy. The workplace can provide social contact with a wide range of people. People can sometimes get a job related to a hobby, pastime or passion they have. Some musicians are paid to play, some collectors are paid to be antique dealers, some sporting enthusiasts are paid to play the game they love.