Imagine having lots of spare time. Now there’s a thought! Maybe it’s slipped from memory, but we’ve all had periods of our lives that came with enough free time to encourage us to develop in individual and sometimes eccentric ways; some learn to play the guitar or cook, others work their way through the classics of literature, or go travelling. Some people appear to do very little with their spare time; but physical inactivity shouldn’t be misunderstood; still waters run deep, or so they say.
These periods normally occur before the social pressure of getting a steady job, an extortionate mortgage and building a little family really begin to squeeze. Of course, a full-time job these days comes with a UK average week of over 39 hours to go with it, which has the knock on effect of sending your spare time into outer space for about forty-five years.
But let’s just imagine we could have both: spare time to indulge our natures and the same standard of living. If you were working 20-25 hours a week with your current full-time pay, you would have time and energy to really enjoy the family, maybe get involved with the community or see old friends. There’s usually something people want to do but don’t have the time: learn a new language, write, paint, play a particular sport, complete a course on feminism… the list is endless. Trying to do any of these things and work almost 40 hours a week reminds me of the Woody Allen line, “I took a course on speed-reading and now I’ve read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.” What we are talking about is having the time to develop who you really are, instead of allowing ourselves to be defined by the means with which we exchange our labour for money.
This was part of how John Maynard Keynes saw our society unfolding, back in 1930. He thought that with our living standards set to rise like never before, we would be able to own or access the necessary material things of life and therefore have a greatly reduced reason to work. Consumerism, as we know it today, was just a hatching plan in 1930. Edward Bernays had a year before staged the famous ladies smoking their ‘torches of freedom‘ and with it the concept of Public Relations and advertising (as a means to influence) was born.
A few years ago, Larry Elliott in The Guardian suggested that the reason Keynes’ prediction of such a reduced working week had failed to materialise, was down to ‘our desire’ to work harder in order to keep up with our wealthier neighbours. There may be a tiny element of truth in this, but I think there is a whole bunch of other things being tactically ignored.
I think first of all we have to look at wages. Real wages have been generally falling for nearly 30 years in the UK. That’s why two generations ago it was common for an average family to live on one breadwinner’s wage. Then we came to our parents’ generation, the baby boom, who found a full-time job now needed supplementing, usually with the other parent taking on part-time work. Our generation has normalised the idea of both parents going out to work full-time; you have to question if the social movement of workplace gender equality has been a victory for campaigners, or if it was politically allowed to increase government revenue in taxes and obfuscate the shrinking of real wages.
An average family starting out today (even with both parents in work), will have by comparison with their grandparents, shocking levels of debt.
The above graph shows how wages have compared to inflation. You can see how the ECG of the boom and bust years is replaced in the early 1980s by the spidery scrawl of a dying villain. These are the neoliberal years; the adoption by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party of the economic theories of Milton Friedman et al., which are still held deeply in the bosom of the current Tory government. But it was also embraced by New Labour, spearheaded by Tony Blair in 1997. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent election as leader of the Labour Party, has created a schism within the organisation, as Blairites repel the principles of peace, justice and democracy from the new leader. From 1988 onwards, the graph tracks a serrated, quarter-century journey, mostly downhill. We are looking at an obvious decline, culminating in the death spasms of the recent financial crash.
GDP per capita, by contrast, has risen almost without fail, year after year… until the crash in 2008, but it has now surpassed the pre-crash level, indicating the recovery that we are always hearing lots about, but seeing very little.
So although we are working hard and long hours, and the obvious fact that there’s an abundance of wealth out there, less and less of it is being paid in real wages.
The very notion of a tax haven summons up images of sun-drenched remote islands, palm trees, anchored yachts and cocktails. But this stereotype has benefited those who take advantage of the reality. The truth is, Britain itself is a tax haven, with corporate and business tax breaks and avoidance schemes orchestrated from the City of London. At the Treasury Select Committee this year, George Osborne proudly stated that Britain has “one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the western world”.
When CEOs such as Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, who has a salary of £30million, earn 780 times more than their average employees, you begin to see how the huge gap between the top earners and everyone else has distorted the general equality that Keynes must have assumed was going to be a continuous aspect of social progression. That the present corporate world seems comfortable with the notion that one CEO can be as valuable as 780 employees, displays its lack of social conscience, not only in regards to employment level, but in the perpetuation of increasing global inequality.
I think the real reason Keynes’ vision failed to materialise has more to do with the advent of advertising and mass consumerism. Can he be blamed for failing to anticipate the uptake, through the ballooning influence of barely regulated or taxed financial institutions and corporations, of neoliberalism in almost all western governments, and their subsequent handing over of power (and mind-blowing wealth) to the banking and corporate world?