City’s long hours signal final death of old aristocratic culture

Allister Heath

DO you remember how the City used to be pre-Big Bang in 1986? Neither do I. But when one talks to those who worked for the old law firms, merchant banks and stockbrokers of the 1960s and 1970s, it is clear that the working practices of the time were as different to today’s as it is possible to imagine.

It’s not just the lack of IT and communications technology, the formality, the drinking and smoking, the fact that executives were overwhelmingly and shockingly male, the general lack of non-Brits, the class-bound nature and composition of some firms, and the reliance on extensive secretarial support staff – the working hours were very different too. The pace of life was much slower, and the hours astonishingly short. Even some partners at stockbrokers worked less than 9-5, and that included long lunches. There were some exceptions, of course, but it was a different world.

All of this has been swept away – successful bankers, lawyers and consultants now earn far more, but work extremely hard for their money, so much so that some banks have been forced to ban junior staff from pulling too many all-nighters.

But the adoption of a long-hours, hard-working culture in City firms in the 1980s mirrors a profound cultural change across most of the developed world. The rich and those with the most qualifications used to work fewer hours than everybody else – now they work the longest hours.

This is a remarkable change, confirmed by Jonathan Gershuny and Kimberly Fisher in a paper for Oxford University’s Centre for Time Use Research. They explain that the fact that the best educated people used to work much shorter hours was “an echo, still in the 1960s, of the end-of-19th century leisure-class ideology”, the idea that the aristocracy wasn’t meant to work and was supposed to rely instead on the ownership of land to finance a life of leisure. Working hard was deemed middle-class, and something to be looked down upon.

All of that is now history. After falling for all categories of workers for decades, the total number of weekly hours worked rose for the highest educated from the 1980s. There are many reasons for that, including the fact that the rise of new categories of very highly paid jobs has drastically increased the opportunity cost of leisure. Managerial jobs have become far more complex, and thus require increased time and attention. Many of these high-paid jobs are also winner-take all and operate in an extraordinarily competitive environment: so workers have to give everything they have in the hope of scooping the jackpot. Whatever the reasons for the shift, it is here to stay. If you want to do well, you will have to work harder than ever.

EVERY so often, an economic indicator is so strong that it deserves a special mention. The fact that the optimism balance in the CBI’s industrial trends survey for the second quarter hit a 41-year high cannot simply be dismissed. It is indicative of the increasing underlying strength of the economy, and is therefore very good news for prospects over the next few quarters.

There were two other pieces of good news in the survey: investment intentions are at their highest since 1997, suggesting that the rise in corporate spending seen over the past few quarters is likely to continue. The export optimism balance also rose, implying that the stronger pound isn’t derailing those seeking to sell manufactured goods abroad.

But while the CBI survey was excellent, the news from the public finances wasn’t. There is no two ways about it: a budget deficit of £107.7bn for the current fiscal year is a terrible outcome. Sure, it was expected – but the UK shouldn’t be borrowing this much at this stage of the recovery. Nobody is bothered by the deficit anymore – but that’s a big mistake.
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