Workaholism, Leisure and Pleasure

The official working week in France has being reduced to 35 hours a week (though the French are now tinkering with it). In most countries in the world, it is limited to 45 hours a week. The trend during the last century seems to be unequivocal: less work, more play.

Yet, what may be true for blue collar workers or state employees – is not necessarily so for white collar members of the liberal professions. It is not rare for these people – lawyers, accountants, consultants, managers, academics – to put in 80 hour weeks.

The phenomenon is so widespread and its social consequences so damaging that it has acquired the unflattering nickname workaholism, a combination of the words “work” and “alcoholism”. Family life is disrupted, intellectual horizons narrow, the consequences to the workaholic’s health are severe: fat, lack of exercise, stress – all take their lethal toll. Classified as “alpha” types, workaholics suffer three times as many heart attacks as their peers.

But what are the social and economic roots of this phenomenon?

Put succinctly, it is the outcome of the blurring of boundaries between work and leisure. This distinction between time dedicated to labour and time spent in the pursuit of one’s hobbies – was so clear for thousands of years that its gradual disappearance is one of the most important and profound social changes in human history.

A host of other shifts in the character of work and domestic environments of humans converged to produce this momentous change. Arguably the most important was the increase in labour mobility and the fluid nature of the very concept of work and the workplace.

The transitions from agriculture to industry, then to services, and now to the knowledge society, increased the mobility of the workforce. A farmer is the least mobile. His means of production are fixed, his produce mostly consumed locally – especially in places which lack proper refrigeration, food preservation, and transportation.

A marginal group of people became nomad-traders. This group exploded in size with the advent of the industrial revolution. True, the bulk of the workforce was still immobile and affixed to the production floor. But raw materials and finished products travelled long distances to faraway markets. Professional services were needed and the professional manager, the lawyer, the accountant, the consultant, the trader, the broker – all emerged as both parasites feeding off the production processes and the indispensable oil on its cogs.

The protagonists of the services society were no longer geographically dependent. They rendered their services to a host of geographically distributed “employers” in a variety of ways. This trend accelerated today, with the advent of the information and knowledge revolution.

Knowledge is not geography-dependent. It is easily transferable across boundaries. It is cheaply reproduced. Its ephemeral quality gives it non-temporal and non-spatial qualities. The locations of the participants in the economic interactions of this new age are transparent and immaterial.

These trends converged with increased mobility of people, goods and data (voice, visual, textual and other). The twin revolutions of transportation and telecommunications really reduced the world to a global village. Phenomena like commuting to work and multinationals were first made possible.

Facsimile messages, electronic mail, other forms of digital data, the Internet – broke not only physical barriers but also temporal ones. Today, virtual offices are not only spatially virtual – but also temporally so. This means that workers can collaborate not only across continents but also across time zones. They can leave their work for someone else to continue in an electronic mailbox, for instance.

These technological advances precipitated the transmutation of the very concepts of “work” and “workplace”. The three Aristotelian dramatic unities no longer applied. Work could be performed in different places, not simultaneously, by workers who worked part time whenever it suited them best.

Flextime and work from home replaced commuting (much more so in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but they have always been the harbingers of change). This fitted squarely into the social fragmentation which characterizes today’s world: the disintegration of previously cohesive social structures, such as the nuclear (not to mention the extended) family.

All this was neatly wrapped in the ideology of individualism, presented as a private case of capitalism and liberalism. People were encouraged to feel and behave as distinct, autonomous units. The perception of individuals as islands replaced the former perception of humans as cells in an organism.

This trend was coupled with – and enhanced by – unprecedented successive multi-annual rises in productivity and increases in world trade. New management techniques, improved production technologies, innovative inventory control methods, automatization, robotization, plant modernization, telecommunications (which facilitates more efficient transfers of information), even new design concepts – all helped bring this about.

But productivity gains made humans redundant. No amount of retraining could cope with the incredible rate of technological change. The more technologically advanced the country – the higher its structural unemployment (i.e., the level of unemployment attributable to changes in the very structure of the market).

In Western Europe, it shot up from 5-6% of the workforce to 9% in one decade. One way to manage this flood of ejected humans was to cut the workweek. Another was to support a large population of unemployed. The third, more tacit, way was to legitimize leisure time. Whereas the Jewish and Protestant work ethics condemned idleness in the past – the current ethos encouraged people to contribute to the economy through “self realization”, to pursue their hobbies and non-work related interests, and to express the entire range of their personality and potential.

This served to blur the historical differences between work and leisure. They are both commended now. Work, like leisure, became less and less structured and rigid. It is often pursued from home. The territorial separation between “work-place” and “home turf” was essentially eliminated.

The emotional leap was only a question of time. Historically, people went to work because they had to. What they did after work was designated as “pleasure”. Now, both work and leisure were pleasurable – or torturous – or both. Some people began to enjoy their work so much that it fulfilled the functions normally reserved to leisure time. They are the workaholics. Others continued to hate work – but felt disorientated in the new, leisure-like environment. They were not taught to deal with too much free time, a lack of framework, no clear instructions what to do, when, with whom and to what end. Trovare professionisti

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