Backlash against the stress society

May 5, 1995

Last year we heard that lecturers were more stressed and pressurised than ever before. Whereas a generation ago universities were relaxing places to be (bar the odd sit-in or demonstration) today every hour is precious, pressurised and probably has to be accounted for.

For many who entered academic jobs 20 or 30 years ago this change in culture has come as a shock. But universities are not alone in this. Greater pressure on time is becoming one of the defining features of our age.

Nearly half the United Kingdom workforce reports often coming home exhausted. Adults now spend far more time taking children to school, going to work or to shop. Days lost from stress have risen by about 20 million each year (to 80 million). And after a century of declining working hours, they actually rose in Britain over the last decade, substantially so for many senior managers and professionals.

Why is this? One interpretation sees it as a result of Government policies and sweatshop mentality. Trade unions are now far less able to regulate working hours down. But the pressure on time also tells us something about the knowledge economy of which universities are a central part. As knowledge has become ever more central to economic life it has become ever more important to get the most out of the people who can produce and adapt it. These people sell not only bodies of knowledge, but also contacts, networks of friends, subtle understandings of what makes people tick, whose judgement to trust and so on. In these kinds of jobs three people working 50 hours a week are much more efficient than five people working 30 hours a week.

But will people take it? I think we can see the beginnings of a backlash. It might not have much effect if it was confined to the part-time service workers - many of whom are also working very long hours in two or three jobs. But when the elite gets pressurised and bothered change usually follows.

In the United States surveys are now regularly showing large numbers being prepared to trade in a slice of their income for more free time. In Japan a new "grasshopper" generation seems much less prepared to work nights and overtime, preferring instead what they call the three vs: villas, visas and visits (and given that 124,000 out of Toyota's 200,000 Japanese employees suffer stress its fairly understandable). Deals are being struck in firms like Volkswagen and Fiat to save jobs by sharing work and taking pay cuts. Much the same happened in Sheffield.

All these indicate, I think, a search for a better balance between work and life: not just leisure, but time with the family. It is not that people want to escape from work altogether. Nearly three-quarters of today's 25-year-olds would work even if they did not need the money, the reason of course being satisfaction.

For many of them the prospect of a truly flexible, post-industrial world is hugely attractive: bank with First Direct, communicate via the Internet and work whenever and wherever you want. Today's students are quite at ease "multitasking" their time: surfing the TV channels, listening to tapes, using multimedia. My guess is that people of all ages will want to see some balance, some ways for work to serve life rather than the other way around, with old-fashioned ideas like the sabbatical becoming part of the mainstream.

Geoff Mulgan is director of the think tank, Demos.

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