John Garth discusses the surprising future of leisure and work as glimpsed in a new study by Professor Jonathan Gershuny, Director of Oxford’s Centre for Time Use Research.


By John Garth

In a 1909 short story, ‘The Machine Stops’, E.M. Forster countered the popular view that technology would liberate us from work – depicting a future in which a worldwide Machine curiously akin to the internet has made people into mental slaves. ‘Then suddenly the Machine stops; and they emerge into the sunlight blinking and not sure what’s going on,’ says Jonathan Gershuny, Professor of Economic Sociology in the Department of Sociology. He is behind a new study arguing that many people are working longer hours not because they need the extra money but because work can be intrinsically fulfilling.  

‘Contrary to what most economists thought until quite recently,’ he says, ‘work ain’t going to disappear. People could end up doing more.’

In the study, co-authored with Kimberley Fisher, ‘Post-Industrious Society: Why Work Time Will Not Disappear for Our Grandchildren’, this trend is made clear by close examination of time-use diaries from 16 countries since the 1960s. This is part of a mass of data from across the developed world collated by the Oxford-based Centre for Time Use Research, an ESRC-funded group which bridges Professor Gershuny’s own Department of Sociology with the Department of Economics. Time-use diaries, first commissioned a century ago in Britain and Russia to measure unpaid work by women or work by subsistence labourers, are now increasingly used in health studies to gauge how people divide their time into exercise, sedentary activity, sleep and so on. 

‘The way you spend your time is now emerging as a major influence on morbidity and mortality,’ says Professor Gershuny, co-director of the Centre. That insight was made clear in a seminal 1932 study of an Austrian village, Marienthal, where the closure of the local factory had led to mass unemployment. 

‘What the researchers discovered was a process of physical debilitation as a result of having lost not the income but various other things that came along with work: the feeling that you’re responsible, that you have a meaning in society, physical exercise, a time structure, interaction with other people.’ With her co-authors, Marienthal researcher Marie Jahoda – who later taught Professor Gershuny himself – identified these five functions of work as vital in the most literal sense: you need them in order to be healthy.

In their new paper, Professor Gershuny and Dr Fisher make the curious observation that many of the activities which occupied the so-called leisured classes in the 19th century – intellectual and creative pursuits, politics and the magistracy, estate management and military endeavour – now constitute the paid work of the affluent. ‘Things that were really asserted definitely not to be work 150 years ago are very often the most highly paid work activities now,’ says Professor Gershuny. 

The early 20th century US economist Thorstein Veblen described this kind of activity as ‘exploit’, a label used in the paper as a contrast with ‘industry’, which is used to describe repetitive and arduous work done for predictable but moderate rewards. Gershuny and Fisher link the upward trend of ‘exploit’ with the observation by U.S. sociologist Daniel Bell in 1973 that in post-industrial society wealth is no longer dependent principally on capital goods but is increasingly won by the people best equipped to use their expertise in the provision of services. 

It examines the technological developments that, in a simplistic view, would have led to the indolent Arcadia satirised by Forster. But it demonstrates how they have in fact eliminated much of the value previously ascribed to physical and artisan skills, while placing a financial premium on the abstract abilities which are needed to develop and deliver new technologies. Meanwhile the predominance of broadcast media has created a demand for highly paid performers in the arts and sports – once again turning the former preserves of the wealthy amateur into the modern job that brings home the real bacon.

‘It’s an explanation for what’s happening now, but it’s also a prognosis,’ says Professor Gershuny, whose work as a futurologist dates back to his first job, for the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. 

So in the future, instead of labouring industriously like H.G. Wells’s Morlocks or lazing about like his Eloi, will we all be 16-hour-a-day creators, performers, legislators or whatnot? Of course not. But Professor Gershuny predicts that such ‘exploit’ will continue to form an increasing proportion of the work that is done in the developed world. 

The fraction of the population who can actually perform this premium work is also increasing, but not as fast. The explanation for that is simple: ‘Those who do enjoy doing it do more of it. People doing the most interesting work work relatively longer hours than people doing less interesting work. Some people’s work is their central life interest and they’ll want to carry on doing it pretty much indefinitely.’

Even the expatriation of industry to low-pay economies may fall away, Professor Gershuny believes. ‘As technology changes further, the division of labour may shift in the direction that reduces the number of low-paid jobs and increases the number of high-paid jobs. At the moment you have dress designers who export their designs to be made up in sweatshops in China; but part of the reason for that is that it is rather difficult to automate the making up of dresses. However, that is gradually changing.’ 

Professor Gershuny might well reflect that in his meticulous statistical work he is paid to do what some of his favourite pioneer science fiction writers did largely for pleasure – itself a satisfying demonstration of part of his thesis. At any rate, his elaboration on the demise of the third-world sweatshop has a suitably Sci-Fi feel to it.

‘In 20 years’ time you may actually find that that clothing manufacture is all done by robots. That would then give you more high-skilled labour in designing and programming the factories which sit in the car parks underneath our theatres – and no work to be expatriated.’

Image by David Wall under Creative Commons license