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Future of work

The Sunday Times

The life (and death) of leisure

Sadly, if you look at "leisure" today, you discover a quality problem. For instance, although well over half the population go swimming at some point each year, it is often an own-time work duty for fitness and social advantage - the late 20th century's version of the tin bath in front of the fire. Alternatively, like the gardening craze, the meaning of leisure has been turned into little more than the purchase and consumption of goods. Tending even a modest back yard is fraught with extraordinary expenses on equipment, plants and fertilisers. Britain spends £7m a year on slug killers alone.

For all our Greek heritage, nearly every pursuit away from work has become a frenzy of spending money. As Christmas shoppers are now being reminded, in order for the volume of goods and services to be increased, the other side of the equation - consumption - must go up accordingly. In this vortex, leisure in Aristotle's sense is more or less dead time, when people are neither working nor consuming - doing nothing from which the controllers of capital can readily make a profit. Production and "leisure time" must hold each other tightly, or the dance will come to an end.

Of course, the bosses spotted this symmetry before conceding the eight-hour day - and to fully appreciate its beauty you need only look at Henry Ford. Although during Battersea's earliest years, his employees across the Atlantic toiled like slaves without the Athens, their wages were considered progressive for manufacturing and they had enough hours off each week to enjoy the new "leisure lifestyle". Time-and-motion experts had long before found that shortening the day need not reduce an industry's output. And the first thing the workers wanted for their precious free time and hard-earned money was an automobile from Ford. When the man died in 1947 he was very, very rich.

But today any charm is leaving the waltz as the music plays faster and faster. Despite current political worries about the public's reluctance to spend, in the longer term consumption must accelerate to foster growth and profit. Time away from work must more than ever be exploited ruthlessly with expensive goods and services - and not just through changing footwear fashions, or the choice of television stations. We must fill every vista and orifice with an exponentially increasing inventory of investment-intensive produce.

To sample the horror of what is to come, consider "leisure" computing, which is opening the frontier of cyberspace and its potential to be infinitely consumed. The Mintel market intelligence company estimates that, despite the recession and price cuts, sales of computer and video games have risen from £179m in 1989 to £700m this year. Half of homes now have the hardware on which to play them. And, while 15% of people surveyed said that these games were too violent and 23% said they discouraged conversation, an incredible 46% said they were addictive - including nearly half of those aged 15 to 19 and 60% of those in their early 20s, who know all about such things.

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Like most pursuits, cyberspace games do not require 300-foot chimneys, but looking again at Thatcher's Battersea hopes: they made a certain sense at the time. With her grasp of social history, she might well have spotted its claim to have been a leisure centre all along - fuelling distant dishwashers and television sets, at the simple flick of a switch. And she would have known that for Marxist intellectuals, mass electrification was seen as a step on the socialist road. How their defeat must have made her want to dance around Faraday's memorial stone.

But, if the political landscape has dramatically changed, those better-life hopes for the National Grid have a clear modern parallel. Under the streets around the old power station, its giant copper cables have been joined by a new web of fibre-optics. In this revolutionary network, a single strand as thin as a hair can carry, at the speed of light, 1,890 simultaneous digital signals - be they telephone calls, television programmes, computer chat or video conferences. The information superhighway is being laid, raising bold visions again.

If more leisure does not come from this, it is hard to see at the present time from where it is likely to spring. As the cables go down, a line is being drawn through societies all over the world, on one side of which millions of people will join the information age. For scores of occupations, from finance, through every kind of design, marketing, brokering, scheduling, consulting, educating and entertaining, the drudgery of fact retrieval, data manipulation and communication is being lifted miraculously. Working in stateless service enterprises, their opportunities to apply their brains will be greater than ever before.

For this group, an international infoclass, the future looks reassuring. What could be conceived that is further from the grim age of factories and clocked-on days? With ideas, creativity and decision-making as the essence of these people's work, many could switch it to California or the Caribbean and nobody but they need know. And with current trends extending towards self-scheduled leisure, their day will be as flexible as only poets and painters have known, at least since agrarian times. With such thoughts, these movers and shakers might feel an Athenian song coming on.

This, however, is the ultimate deception of capitalism's modernisation - another elaborate fantasy world that nobody will ever see. Unlike 18th century shepherds blowing flutes and watching their flocks, or farmers tapping mah-jong tiles while they wait for the rice to ripen, the infoclass will find itself trapped in a fearsome round-the-clock race. Not for them will be the life of cheerily hawking their wares to village neighbours, with modest local competition. They will be trading in global markets, where their rivals never sleep.

Here is not a beginning for leisure; this is where it ends. A public relations executive in Manchester loses an account to another in Sydney because he was taking the kids to school when the Australian made a pitch. A Cape Town cardiologist is fired by an Ontario hospital because she took her summer vacation during its busy winter week. Dozens of publishers in New York and London are trapped by a prized author in Nairobi in an instant bidding contest. All reconfiguring costs and margins against millisecond-counting clocks.

As the machines run faster (and processing is currently doubling in speed about every 18 months) people may have more theoretical discretion about their work and recreation time. But the superhighway will favour the quick, even above the inspired. And as market signals approach the economists' dream of perfect knowledge, non-market considerations will come to count for less. All the small pauses in which leisure once lived, will be relentlessly squeezed in the Net.

In this world, time itself will seem to accelerate with consumption. A trip to the opera, a dinner with friends or a long night of sex may need to find some justification in what it brings to the working day. Will it give access to classical paradigms for use in an advertising war? Will it create a friendship to open a door that on-line is stubbornly shut? Will it release the tension in shoulder muscles caused by hunching in front of screen?

Many among the infoclass, of course, will find pleasure in providing their services - but confusions of labour and leisure only quickens the pace even more. It is no new discovery that people toil harder if they have a sense of purpose, discretion and responsibility. Even in 1991, the national census showed that a quarter of corporate executives worked more than 40 hours a week and 7.5% more than 50. This compares with less than 5% and 0.6% respectively of more-directed clerical staff.

That the length of the day is linked to what it entails is, in fact, one of the most important lessons of the old eight-hours campaign. Much of that movement's energy emerged in the 19th century precisely as mill owners most vigorously assaulted the labourer's quality of life. As pre-industrial features like creativity, responsibility and diversity were eliminated by intensive technologies, so work's duration diminished - creating the chance for leisure time. It is another reason for forecasting that, as the infoclass reclaims those features, its time spent working will go up and time for leisure will fall.

Those who will sell Disneyland hamburgers rather than join this harried class may hope to get off lightly. But no evidence points to that. As Britain shuts the door on the industrial age and the last vestiges of manufacturing move to more appropriate, foreign, locations, most of those in face-to-face jobs will feel carved-up as well. If they are spared the frenetic chase of the infobahn, their jobs will be pursued no less keenly by those millions who do not have them. A few doctors, lawyers, teachers and hands-on technicians may smile, but for most, the businesses in other people's pleasures may not be a lot of fun.

It is hardly surprising that so many Britons have an inexplicable feeling of fear. Prod a little, as Thatcher did over tax cuts, and you find that people know instinctively that, say, the currently rocketing numbers of part-time, self-employed or short-contract jobs is not a foretaste of booming leisure, with microchips for slaves. Even the bosses are in terror at the prospect of losing their positions - awarding each other stunning sums of money, just in case of the worst. But, as with the vast ruined building at the heart of the capital, the very familiarity of such issues tends to jade any sense of concern.

Joe and Joanna Public, however, know that something deep is happening - and, if you bother to ask them, more or less what it is. In what must be one of the least publicised sequences of social questioning ever, Gallup put to people in April: "There used to be a lot of talk in politics about a 'class struggle'. Do you think there is a class struggle in this country, or not?" Of those surveyed, a startling 78% said "yes there is". This figure was a rise from 74% in 1984, from 60% in 1974 and from just 48% ten years before that. People may have interpreted the inquiry differently, but, unusually for opinion polling, the words stayed the same.

There is a lot to be debated about the attitude suggested, but for now it is enough that this fascinating question may help with the paradox of leisure. In the 1960s, when the poll showed that more than twice as many people denied there was a class struggle than do so today, the landscape of life was fertile ground for personal, high-quality time. And to see how that can have been: just watch how, say, inflation trails behind interest rates, or employment behind public spending. A window of opportunity opens and then it closes again. Free time became available before consumption caught up with it - when, for a brief moment in history, people had hours, days and weeks that they did not convert straight into products and services.

That period, which began in earnest after the war and partied-on until the end of Edward Heath's government in 1974, had all the magical pleasure of the unplanned childhood treat. It was as if in 1945 the nation had woken up feeling ill, got the day off school and then mysteriously recovered by about half past ten. There was no guilt, or fear of punishment. There was no homework to do and no more would be coming that night. The afternoon was pure freedom, even for music or contemplation.

As it happens, that was when Britain built its welfare state, but those were also the days, for instance, when there were twice as many bingo clubs, but less than half the gaming machines. When students could claim housing benefits and so often spent the summer travelling, or just hanging out. When many women had seen some of the burdens of housework lifted, but could still choose not to work. When there were no mobile phones. And when there were not even four television channels, let alone the home shopping network, QVC, headquartered by Battersea.

But then it ended in a miner's strike, an international oil crisis and economic "stagflation". The minority administration of Harold Wilson, elected in February 1974, symbolically marked the moment of change - and even by the following year, as Britain voted on the Common Market, everybody sensed that the days of leisure were firmly in the past. What seems to us now to be receding ahead had already fallen behind.

This was also the time, by one of life's coincidences, of an event at the power station. Below the still-smoking chimneys, another curious ceremony was held, although no knights or deans took part. On 7 February 1974, amid a wave of workers' emotion, the signal was given from the control room to shut down No 3. Valves turned away its steam and for the last time the giant turbo-alternator lost speed and spun to a halt. In nearly 39 years, it had run for 205,000 hours and generated 14,558 million kilowatt-hours for the Grid. The station carried on for another nine years, but this machine was its heart.

It would be fair to hope that on a winter's night you could still hear the roar of No 3, and not the thwack of ghosts playing squash. But when the roads have calmed and the airport has closed, you cannot find much in this monument to leisure of what has gone, or what was planned. You do notice cats and scurrying rodents, but the most conspicuous sound, every 15 minutes, is from a couple of miles downstream. From a gothic tower above the "mother of parliaments" comes the striking of a clock.

Read another Culture Essay by Brian Deer, Japan feels the squeeze, on the future of Japanese society.

Future of work
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This report is copyright, Brian Deer. No portion of this article on Battersea power station and the future of work may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express permission of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated