Constantly running beneath recent debates on the effects of robotization on employment (how many non-automated jobs will there be?) is the question whether modern societies are able to offer everyone a full-time job. Does working time necessarily diminish with technological progress and economic development? It is in order to answer this question that Jonathan Gershuny and Kimberly Fisher have studied the results of surveys on individual workers’ hours in 16 countries over the last five decades. In this article, they describe the trends that emerge with regard to work in the broader sense.
After looking back over the way aspirations and relations to work and leisure have changed since the 19th century (drawing mainly on Veblen’s theories), Gershuny and Fisher present the various surveys that underpin their analysis and describe their methodology. They then identify a number of major trends: a degree of historical constancy and similarity between countries over the last 55 years in terms of the time devoted to (paid + unpaid) work; a convergence in the trends among male and female workers and near parity between the sexes as far as time devoted to all (paid + unpaid) work is concerned; an apparent historic levelling-off of working hours around eight-and-a-half hours per day; and a reversal in the human-capital-related work-leisure gradient (the better educated now work more), which the authors associate with a growth in “exploit” as opposed to “industry” (to use Veblen’s terminology) within paid work in early 21st century societies.