The extra 38 hour work week

So I was looking at my Audible statistics the other day. I always listen to audiobooks during my commute, from I leave the flat in the morning until I enter the office, and vice versa after work. And apparently that adds up to just over 38 hours per month.

Cool, I thought at first, that means I’m spending 38 hours a month learning from good non-fiction books. I like learning, and I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve ‘read’ — some recent highlights include several books by Naomi Klein, starting with the terrifyingly excellent The Shock Doctrine, as well as the infuriating and well-researched Moneyland by Oliver Bullough, the absolute classic Political Ideals by Bertrand Russel, and the amusingly enlightening Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely — so that’s a good thing.

But then I realised what that actually means: For every month of work, an extra full working week is added just for my commute. And this is the norm down here.

Those trade union gains we hear about, the 38 hour work week for example, that’s just been completely erased. And as per usual in British society, this can be traced directly to Thatcher policy. Long commutes — or at least the commonality of them — is a very new phenomenon. Just between 2008 and 2013, the number of ‘extreme commuters’ — whose combined commute time per day adds up to more than three hours — doubled from one in 20 to one in 10.

The average across the UK is at least 59 minutes per day, but there are extreme outliers. In the North West, journeys can be as much as 26 hours per year. Compare that to my 38 hours per month

And again, this is new and getting worse: in 2013, the London average was 56 minutes per day compared to a 59 minute national average in 2019. All of this, btw, up from a national average of 24 in 1988. Curiously, statistics are not available prior to Thatcher, but they have been rising ever since.

And we know Thatcher caused this, because one of the keystones of her socioeconomic policy was to de-localise work and production, even going so far as to shut down profitable businesses just because they had labour-based communities around them. And that won’t do.

When you add to this that compensation — real wages — have been on a downward trend since about 1980 (when did Thatcher become PM again?), that puts some things into perspective.

Most people are making no more money now than workers did in the 70s. But most people are also spending anywhere from an eighth to a third more time on their work day because of longer commutes. Adjust real wages for that, and you’ll find that average real hourly compensation has dropped as much as 33% since the 70s.

Welcome back to the 50 hour work week.

And apart from food, all the necessities have got more expensive. The graph below is for the US, but these are trends that — overall — hold everywhere in the west. With some notable exceptions, of course; the price of hospital services doesn’t make much sense to talk about because of our NHS, but the increase in housing prices in the UK more than compensates. Again, also tracing back to Thatcher. But hey, at a 66% increase over the past decade in London, that’s apparently a “weak growth”.

Writer, teacher, technologist, behavioural engineer, and linguist. Anti-authoritarian socialist. Opinions are my own and do not reflect on associates. He/him