‘Britain is the only country whose people work harder than they did in the 1980s, an international study has found. Margaret Thatcher’s workplace revolution has seen Britons working more hours per week than when she was in Number Ten.’
Let’s ignore the question whether long working hours are, in themselves, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Let’s just look at the most straightforward measure of working time, which is the total number of hours worked over the year, divided by the average number of people in employment in the same year. This measure reveals a clear long-term downward trend. In 2007, average annual working time was 270 hours shorter than in 1970, the equivalent of 34 workdays. When choosing 1988 as a benchmark year, the reduction still amounts to 125 hours, equivalent to 16 workdays.
Average annual hours actually worked per worker
(Source: OECD StatExtracts)
Even though this measure does not include those working zero hours, i.e. the unemployed and the economically inactive, we can still identify high-unemployment periods in the graph. This must be due to the ‘echo’ of unemployment: when unemployment rises, some of those who do not lose their jobs outright will still experience an involuntarily shortening of their working week.
This makes the trend anything but smooth. Between 1979 and 1981, working hours experienced an extremely sharp drop, echoing the exceptional increase in unemployment during that recession. From then on, working hours rose again, but only in 1988 did they resume their long-term trend of a gradual reduction.
As a result, the ‘normal’ level of annual working time of the early 2000s was about equal to the recession level of the early 1980s. But for a snapshot comparison to be meaningful, we either have to compare a growth period with another growth period, or a recession with another recession.
In 2009, for example, average annual working time was down again compared with just two years earlier: 27 hours, or three and a half workdays. Presumably, the affected readers of the Daily Mail were no less angry about this development than they were about the supposed ‘legacy of Thatcherism’.