Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hours of Labour I

by Sydney J. Chapman, (translated and condensed by the Sandwichman)

Among the most insistent problems to be found in industrial societies are those concerning wages, conditions of work and living, and the hours of labor. The problem of the hours of labor has, perhaps, not received as much practical consideration as the others. Expressed in another way, our topic is the value of leisure, the bearing of industrial development upon it, and its effectiveness in shaping economic arrangements. The demands continually made for shorter hours and a normal day; the widely supported claim that the State should intervene; and the fact that some Governments have intervened, even to the length of regulating the hours of adult male labor, are additional grounds for trusting that this topic will be of more than academic interest.

Why doesn't the question of leisure assume prominence until modern industrialism has supplanted a simpler economy? Why is much less heard of it among agricultural than among industrial communities? In the hand industries of the past, the hours of labor were excessively long in comparison with modern industrial standards. Among the peasantry and pioneering farmers, work never wholly ceases in waking hours, except for short breaks for meals, throughout much of the year. Yet little complaint would seem to have reached us from either source. The explanation may lie partially in the fact that new grievances emerged with the spread of the wages system – the problem of the working day does not present itself in quite the same light to wage earners and to the self-employed. Furthermore, these grievances are rendered more articulate by group production and the concentration of people from one economic class lends cohesion and volume to the demand for reform. The hardships suffered by a scattered population, occasioning discontents, which, however, stop short of provoking outbreak, seldom succeed in attracting public notice. People acting in isolation are naturally timid. But this is not the sole explanation. The character of much of the world's work has changed and so have the demands made upon leisure.

Industrial work on the whole has certainly become more regular and continuous throughout the year. Analysis would seem to show that work per unit of time gets more severe, in a sense, as communities advance, though a strong case could be made for the view that economic progress fosters work that is generally more satisfying and conducive to human development. Mechanical improvements frequently bring with them a new monotony of work. However, higher wages may offset that new monotony of work by offering broader opportunities for living. Mechanical improvement proceeds by "specializing out" mechanical tasks, the performance of which by hand must be a dreary occupation. But each step in the march of invention seems to create, by its incompleteness, tasks involving a new and more intensified monotony despite the fact that it may result in less tedium per unit of output. Any work whose pace is set by a machine and kept absolutely steady must be wearisome. We may usefully compare mechanical improvements with discoveries relating to the re-use of by-products. The latter always recover from waste something of value to the community, but they generally leave a residue more concentrated than that with which they began.



Ted said...

Sandwichman, please keep this stuff coming. I've tried to follow along with the Chapman stuff in your posts but have found it unreadable. Your "translation" is very helpful.

Anonymous said...

"FN: Jobs are all that really matter now. Parabolic stock markets fueled by short squeezes don't do a whole heck of a lot for Joe Sixpack. They may briefly inspire some hope, but when the paychecks shrink or stop altogether, it really doesn't matter that stocks had another green day."

Sandwichman said...

Thank you, Ted.