September 21st, 2006

Where did the day go?

A letter in The Observer (see the one from Moira Davies here) took Ruth Kelly to task for her comments on ‘work-life balance’ and her apparent determination to put her family before her job as a Cabinet Minister. A difficult area, but I wonder if the chief executive of a FTSE 100 company would get away with telling their shareholders that they put family life before the firm’s success? Isn’t the cliché that top people “resign to spend more time with the family”? That is, they make choices at different parts of their life course.

Ms Davies’ letter also highlighted the unacknowledged costs of ‘flexible’ working practices such as job sharing, part time work, home-working and flexible hours – not least in the burden of responsibility implicitly transferred to those that do not take advantage of these practices.

This all came to mind because it is ‘Diversity Week’ at my employer and I want to speak up for a marginalised group – the hard-working full-timers that backfill for, and work around, flexibly working colleagues. I’m well aware of the arguments for work-life balance policies (see this Canadian government case) and can see the case. What I don’t like is the denial about the inefficiency, costs and burden-shifting that come with them. But most of all, I think we should understand time use much better and have insights into where our time goes and how paid work, unpaid work and leisure are distributed in society and how this is changing.

Time use surveys can tell us much about what is going on in people’s lives and how they use the fixed amount of time available each week – some links to explore in depth overview / National Statistics page / fascinating seminar / another fascinating seminar. The charts above are adapted from Jonathan Gershuny of the Institute for Social and Economic Research. Some findings: on average we do less work than in the past, but we are feeling busier; social class gradients in working time have reversed (richer people used to work less but now work more than poorer people); men and women have gradually converged towards equal leisure time and are moving to a more even balance between paid and unpaid work. Some interesting reading from Gershuny below:

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