Our time-less lives

August 30, 1996

The feel-good factor hasn't returned, so we are told, because job insecurity is still widespread. But Ray Pahl, continuing our series on work and the family, believes it is also because our fractured social roles do not give us time to live as well as earn.

Politicians confidently assume that appropriate economic indicators can be directly related to people's sense of well-being - their capacity to "feel good". But this so-called "feel-good" factor has been found wanting when explored by various public opinion polls, despite signs of economic recovery measured by consumer spending, lower interest rates and continuing low inflation levels. People stubbornly reflect a degree of insecurity, seemingly independently of such economic indicators.

Ministers appear to hold to the Marxist doctrine that the economic base determines the social superstructure, and believe that the logic of this economic determinism will bring things right - at least by the date of the next election. They seem encouraged by social scientists who, by analysing large-scale data sets, such as the Labour Force Survey, show that one of the commonly supposed causes of feelings of insecurity, namely high job turnover or length of average period of employment, has not, in fact, changed much over time. So, the politicians argue, people are mistaken to feel insecure, they are suffering from a form of false consciousness.

Such hard-nosed critics of what they perceive as journalistic hype refer to the whinge factor among middle managers now feeling the chill discipline of the market. Few managers seemed much concerned about the lack of the "feel-good" factor among redundant miners in the early 1980s: that was seen as sensible rationalisation.

So, is the managerial downsizing that is producing leaner, fitter firms both nationally desirable and grossly exaggerated? Examples are regularly given in the financial pages. Earlier this year Royal Insurance and Sun Alliance announced a merger. Shares went up by 16 or 17 per cent, and 5,000 jobs were lost (11 per cent). One person's job loss is another's dividend rise. Reading such a terse commentary in the newspaper, is it any wonder many members of comfortable England feel uneasy?

The gurus talk about the inexorable determinism of globalisation, "British insurance companies have been falling behind globally", as one executive involved in the Royal-Sun Alliance merger argued in justification of the sackings. Another job-devourer is information and communication technology and finally, of course, there is the domination of short-term shareholder interest.

All this hit the United States in the 1980s when 3.4 million jobs were eliminated from the Fortune 500 firms, and between 1989 and 1993 1.6 million were lost in manufacturing. One study of over 400 employers showed that four-fifths had downsized between 1986 and 1991, cutting their workforce by an average 12.4 per cent.

Such statistics indicate that the job market may be perceived as insecure - but so also is the emotional market. The "transformation of intimacy", in sociologist Anthony Giddens's phrase, has led many to get on their emotional bikes and move on to more rewarding relationships. Partners and children left behind impose economic and social burdens. Divorce can make family relationships more important as quality time has to be found for children of a previous partner, children coming with a present partner and children of the new union. There are also elderly parents to consider: if they too have divorced later in life, they may be in separate households and will need to be visited.

Few commentators have recognised the importance of time as an increasingly salient resource. The manager under pressure at work following restructuring cannot easily subcontract his responsibilities to children of previous unions or to elderly parents. Daughters are daughters all their lives, and wives and sisters are making it clear the sons cannot shirk their responsibilities either. American research on what is called "role-related stress" shows that family roles influence reactions to stress among men much more than among women. Jonathan Gershuny, professor of sociology, has used data from the British Household Panel Study at Essex University to demonstrate that those with the highest monthly incomes have the longest hours of work. For men (excluding the unemployed), the best paid 20 per cent work about ten hours longer a week than do the worst paid. Those with the highest earnings now have the least time to spend them or the time to do the unpaid work of parenting and being an active citizen.

These money-rich/time-poor people are not likely to be as happy as they might be, and those judgementalists who say they have time enough to mess up their private lives massively miss the point. Relationships need time and proximity too.

In my book, After Success, I argue that the view of success that emerged with the conjunction of early capitalism and protestantism is now fading. The compulsive commitment to a calling, or, later, a career was a singularly male view of success which is now collapsing. Certainly, the Bill Gates Syndrome provides a modern counterpart to the Victorian Captain of Industry, spending all hours at factory or mill. However, the collapse of both the cosy social closure of the professions and the careers of organisational escalators has forced men to re-evaluate the bases of their heavily skewed social identities. On the one hand, the compulsive concentration on career success was generally predicated by having a home support staff, and male providers typically paid unctuous homage to a loyal little wifey in their speeches at the end of a long company career. While there may be more Denis Thatchers now, the growth of dual-career partnerships leaves a serious "life-work hiatus" in the progressive business school jargon. Support staff in the form of nannies, childminders and cleaners can be bought, but they too get ill and need time to manage.

The very highest paid clearly can, and do, buy themselves out of trouble, but for most of the once comfortable class, even if both partners are in employment, the juggling and balancing can become excessively stressful.

So, if the old bourgeois idea of success was the single-minded pursuit of wealth, power and prestige, based on a gendered division of labour, what is the model which is to replace it now that such a gendered separation of spheres is collapsing? Clearly the answer involves some form of life-work balance. Men are parents and carers too. Unfortunately, this new demand for balance, for time to live as well as to earn, does not fit easily with the aggressive, phallocentric management-speak peddled by the hyperactive business gurus from Boston, Massachussetts. Boston is to business fashion what Paris is to women's fashion and the inconsistency of replacing one fad with another appears to be no different from the way Parisian fashion houses change the nature of what is deemed fashionable with free abandon. However, the gurus who stalk the companies, preaching the inevitability of change, urging the leaner, meaner companies to fight aggressively in the global war of competition are not in the way of taking prisoners. Downsize or Die was once the cry, until Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley and a leading downsizing advocate, admitted he was "guilty of having perpetrated the myth". As the Independent on Sunday said, "now he tells us he was wrong".

While certain progressive companies will provide for fathers some days of paid parental leave, with an option of longer periods of unpaid leave, leaving Important Meetings to handle a crisis with a sick child or ailing elderly parent is not likely to be viewed with much sympathy.

I am arguing for the complexity of the elusive "feel-good" factor in contemporary professional and managerial social worlds, and its link with changes in organisations and households. Research being planned at Essex should throw light on what is clearly a rapidly changing situation. The Household Panel provides longitudinal data on the job changes of all household members. By asking retrospective questions, a long-time series of job changes can be analysed and linked to changes in the household. We are planning to work on four fronts.

First, there is the work on longitudinal data sets in Britain and later, possibly, in Germany and the United States, since international comparisons will be crucial. Second, we intend to explore with "mega-actors" in finance and industry how they perceive the inevitabilities of global competition, changes in information technology and so forth as the agents of organisational change. Do business leaders still perceive themselves to have real choices and, if so, what are the parameters of these choices? Third, we intend to develop case studies of strategically selected organisations, focusing on the changing nature of the psychological or social contract. If the old basis of the contract has been destroyed by "change", can a new kind of contract emerge? Do those who are forced out of private sector organisations reappear in new, dynamic entrepreneurial roles, do they slip sideways into managerial positions in the public sector, or do they "down-shift" and settle for a quieter life making pots in Devon or whatever? In particular, what are the knock-on effects in their domestic and private relationships? For those who stay in the organisations, do they work longer or more intensively, or both? Are they more loyal or more resentful, and what new cleavages appear within the management structure? Are they more secure now some have gone, or more fearful that they may be the next in line? Do they practise "presenteeism" - staying longer in the office as evidence of their dedication, or do they confidently recognise their high value to the organisation by feeling able to leave early, or plan their work flexibly? And how does the organisation assess the costs and benefits of what it has done in both the long and the short-term?

Finally, we plan to look at organisations in the light of a putative social contract with the wider community. What are the social costs of closure, downsizing, out-sourcing and the provision of public service facilities? It may be that the knock-on costs add substantially to public expenditure, so that shareholders may benefit in the short term at the expense of taxpayers in the long term.

Back in 1959, Mark Abrams set a generation of sociologists working on the question which was the title of his book Must Labour Lose? Labour's electoral position was being seemingly undermined by the impact of affluence on the British class structure. Now we are asking whether the Conservatives must lose because of the erosion of security among its traditional supporters. The Essex research on managers and organisations is a mirror image of the earlier research on the workers. If it is as successful as the earlier programme, it will provide food for commentators to chew on for many years to come.

Ray Pahl is professor of sociology at the University of Essex.

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