This article is by Brian Dean, and was originally published in the Idler magazine No 35, Summer 2005.

The future of work as previously predicted

• In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin predicted we'd soon work a 4-hour week.

• George Bernard Shaw predicted we'd work a 2-hour day by 2000.

• In 1933, the US Senate passed a bill for an official 30-hour work week. (President Roosevelt killed it.)

• In 1935, W.K. Kellogg introduced a scheme to cut 2 hours from the working day, yet pay the same wages. It was cost-effective – morale and productivity rose; accident and insurance rates fell.

• In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a 4-day work week in the "not too distant future".

• In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour work week by 1985, 14 hours by 2000.

• In the 1960s, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just 5% of the work being done would satisfy our food, clothing and shelter needs.

• In 1981, Buckminster Fuller claimed that 70% of US jobs were unnecessary: "inspectors of inspectors, reunderwriters of insurance reinsurers, Obnoxico promoters, spies and counterspies…"


 WORK MYTHS EXPOSED printable version > 

Myth: "People enjoy their jobs"

In 2001, the UK government announced plans for a "work first" culture. Ministers spoke of how work "holds communities together" and "gives life meaning". Meanwhile, back in the real world...

• In 2002, the Work Foundation reported that "job satisfaction has plummeted", and that so-called "high performance" management techniques made workers deeply unhappy and failed to raise output.

• In January 2004, a marketing director at Prudential was reported as saying: "Our research shows that an alarming number of people appear to be unhappy in their employment and unfulfilled by their work".

• A British Social Attitudes survey revealed that 6 in 10 British workers are unhappy in their jobs, with a majority reporting feelings of insecurity, stress, pointlessness, exhaustion and inadequate income.

• A Samaritans survey found that jobs are the single biggest cause of stress – and that the link between work and suicide is likely to be underestimated. In Japan, around 5% of all suicides are "company related" and suicide is an official, compensated work-related condition.

• In a pathetic attempt to raise worker morale, employers are giving high-sounding titles to mundane jobs. The recruitment company, Reed, noticed these examples:

Technical Sanitation Assistant (toilet cleaner)
Optical Illuminator Enhancer (window cleaner)
Head of Verbal Communications (receptionist)
Senior Corporate Events Manager (secretary)

(Sources given in full at bottom of page)

Myth: "We have more leisure now"

• Working hours have risen in the last 20 years, on average, for UK full-time workers (as shown by the UK Labour Force Survey). This reverses a 150-year trend of declining working hours.

• UK governments have known for decades that long hours are economically counterproductive. A 1916 Home Office report, Industrial Fatigue, noted that output "is lowered by the working of overtime. The diminution is often so great that the total daily output is less when overtime is worked than when it is suspended. Thus overtime defeats its own object."

• The UK government has admitted a "sharp increase" in excessive working hours. DTI research found that 1 in 6 employees now work more than 60 hours a week.
Full-time employees in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. The average for full-timers in the UK is 43.5 hours per week. In France it's 38.2 and in Germany 39.9, yet both are more productive than the UK.

• According to an ICM poll, 1 in 5 UK workers never take a lunch-break. And 57% of workers take a break of less than 30 minutes (30 minutes is the legal minimum).

• A May 2003 British Medical Association survey found that 77% of consultants work more than 50 hours a week for the NHS, and 46% more than 60 hours.

• Each year employees are giving £23 billion in free labour to their bosses, according to the TUC. The union organisation has designated February 27th as "Work Your Proper Hours Day", after calculating that this is the day when the average worker who does unpaid overtime stops working for free.

Myth: "Hard work never harmed anyone"

• People with stressful jobs are twice as likely to die from heart disease, according to a 2002 study in the British Medical Journal.

• People who work over 48 hours per week have double the risk of heart disease, according to a 1996 UK government report.

• Long-term job strain is worse for your heart than gaining 40lbs in weight or aging 30 years, according to a 2003 US study.

• Work kills more than war. Approximately two million workers die annually due to occupational injuries and illnesses, according to a United Nations report. This is more than double the figure for deaths from warfare (650,000 deaths per year). Work kills more people than alcohol and drugs together.

• 82% of workers at the Department for Work and Pensions have suffered ill health as a result of pressure of work, according to a 2003 survey.

• The Health and Safety Executive reports that the number of people suffering from work-related stress has more than doubled since 1990.

• BBC News quotes the International Stress Management Association as saying: "Each year we conduct research into stress and each year the figure just keeps on getting worse."

• Rising stress at work is causing increasing numbers of young professionals to grind their teeth while they sleep, according to the British Dental Health Foundation.

Myth: "Work cures poverty"

• The number of people in work is at "record levels" according to the UK government. Meanwhile, official UK figures show 22% of people living in poverty, compared to 13% in 1979.

47% of employees have wages that, on their own, are insufficient to avoid poverty.

42% of employees rely on means other than their own wages to avoid poverty.

In the 1970s and 1980s, around 4% of low-paid employees lived in poverty. Currently, 14% of low-paid employees live in poverty. (5% of all employees now live in poverty).

• Since the early 1970s GDP (national income) has doubled, but in real terms (ie allowing for inflation) the bottom 10% of jobs pay less now than in 1970. The minimum wage would have to be around £6.50 per hour to bring low-pay up to the 1970 level.

• Meanwhile, in America, 40% of those served in soup kitchens have jobs. Nearly a fifth of all homeless people in the USA are employed in jobs.


Myth: "People enjoy their jobs"

Work Foundation, April 2002; Christian Science Monitor, 12 Jan 2004; BSA survey; The Samaritans 'Stressed Out', May 2003; Hazards magazine factsheet 83, 2003; The Japan Times, 10 May 2003; Study by Reed, March 2002.

Myth: "We have more leisure now"
UK Labour Force Survey, Historical Supplement and Quarterly Supplement, Autumn 1999; Hazards magazine factsheet 78, 2002; Guardian, 30 Aug 2002; TUC online,; ICM poll quoted by; Hazards magazine factsheet 83, 2003; Press Association, Feb 26 2004.

Myth: "Hard work never harmed anyone"
'Work stress and risk of cardiovascular mortality...', British Medical Journal, 19 Oct 2002; The Money Programme, BBC2, 11 Feb 1996; 'Life course exposure to job strain...', American Journal of Epidemiology, 2003; UN International Labor Organisation SafeWork programme, April 2002; PCS survey, May 2003; Hazards magazine no. 81; BBC News Online, 7 Nov 2001; British Dental Health Foundation, 27 Jan 2000.

Myth: "Work cures poverty"
Government DWP press release, Nov 2004;; Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, Nov 2004; Guardian, 14 Jun 2002; National Coalition for the Homeless, 1997.

The future of work as previously predicted
Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slow; John de Graaf, Affluenza; Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work; Bob Black, The Abolition of Work; Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path.