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The expropriation of time: the end of Fordist work and leisure

Theo Beckers, Department of Leisure Studies, Tilburg University

From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here.


The shift from an industrial, Fordist to a post-industrial, post-Fordist order of time is affecting every area of life: offices and supermarkets, schools and television, parenting and pensions. Its promise is to increase both organisational flexibility and individual autonomy. The old ways of managing time are fast disappearing. Fixed jobs, shared rhythms of leisure, marriage, work and retirement are on the way out. In place of fixed shopping hours we are developing 24 hour shopping; instead of 8 hour days and shifts we enter a world of infinite flexitime; in place of a fixed period of school and university education we are invited to life long and just in time learning. Post-industrial societies are in the midst of profound changes in the way they organise time and the prospects for economic, social, cultural and political change depend perhaps more than ever before on developing a coherent politics of time (Du Roy, Feys and Meyer, 1989; Sirianni 1991).


The unfreezing of temporal rigidities and the blurring of temporal boundaries are evident in the organisation of the workplace, in methods of sequencing and integrating major life events such as education, work and retirement as well as in the restructuring of consumption and leisure. The modern, industrial compartments of social time loose their meaning. In this paper I want to give a brief historical analysis of changing relations between work and leisure from Fordist to post-Fordist societies. This is based on a study of state intervention in time and leisure in the last hundred years in the Netherlands and on data of our time budget study 1975-1995. In my concluding section I will raise some issues for a normative discussion.


Between 1880 and the First World War a new culture of time and space emerged (Kern, 1983). A series of sweeping changes in economy, technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about experiencing time and space. In his essay on ‘The metropolis and mental life’ in 1900 George Simmel commented on the impact of the universal diffusion of pocket watches in accelerating modern life and instilling a sense of punctuality, calculability and exactness in business transactions as well as human relations.


The modern concept of time became institutionalised in a Fordist industrial society between the World Wars. In this time-concept social life was defined as a homogeneous and quantifiable sequential organisation of activities. Time was abstract, determined by its monetary value. Fordist industrialism was based on the idea of a divided social time and of a strict division between time which belonged to the master (working time) and one’s own time (free time), both types of time having their own set of codes and values. In reality, so called free time never was autonomous and independent. The allocation of free time and its use always remained functional and dependent on the labour system. The establishment of wage relations in the second half of the nineteenth century sanctioned the shift from task-oriented work to time-measured taylorised work. In the same way leisure became time-based and rationally planned by employers, governments and even workers’ organisations. The old slogan of the international labour movement for shorter hours - ‘eight hours work, eight hours sleep, and eight hours to do what we will’ - became a reality in the years 1919-1920 in most industrial nations. In the Netherlands and many other industrial nations the eight hour day was introduced in 1919, the paid holiday during the thirties. The elites of both the establishment and the labour movement were concerned about the proper use of this new realm of freedom. Alternative strategies to develop a counter culture for workers, and to develop independent leisure free from the interference of state, market and employers failed. Doppolovaro, the organisation of leisure in fascist Italy combined Fordist scientific management techniques imported from the United States with corporatist views on a classless harmonious community life (De Grazia, 1982) Similar fascist leisure organisations were founded in Spain and Italy. In national socialist Germany Kraft durch Freude proved to be an effective instrument for the transfer of political ideas and the creation of mass loyalty to the regime. For the first time in history industrial workers could experience what had been exclusively elite habits: they could, for instance, participate in tourism and leisure consumption. The initially enthusiastic reaction of left-wing intellectual circles in the West to the creation of a workers culture in the Soviet Union changed rapidly during the Stalinist thirties. Western industrial democracies were not influenced by state totalitarianism, but by market imperialism and the emergence of a consumer culture, which became irresistible in the sixties. In his fascinating book ‘Time and money. The making of consumer culture’ Gary Cross (1993) explains why hopes that mass production would create a leisure society proved to be illusory. In his view time and money are unequal pleasures. Industrialism is biased toward producing goods rather than enlightened and rational leisure time. The accumulation of material wealth has reduced time to money. This consumerist modernity is essentially trans-national, only emerging where both productivity and distribution are relatively advanced. Based on an historical analysis of the development in the United States, Britain and France in the twenties and thirties he analyses the failure of democratic leisure and cultural policies in non-totalitarian nations. The first sociological study of worker’s leisure in the Netherlands in 1934, during the depression, revealed the difficulty of enlisting even skilled and politically active workers in the leisure programs and organisations in the labour movement, also documenting the attractions of new forms of American entertainment and consumption, all provided by the market.


World War II and the post-war years of economic recovery represent just a moment in the history of a longer term trend in which leisure is equated with consumption. Despite an emerging critique of consumerism in the fifties (Adorno, Marcuse, Galbraith and many others), the workers themselves enjoyed the increase in free time, purchasing power and level of education. During the sixties we see a fast process of democratisation of time and money, and of the social and cultural practices derived from both resources. The welfare state encouraged and provided the democratisation of culture, sports, mass media and travel. In return for their adaptive behaviour on the labour market industrial workers and their families were rewarded in terms of leisure and consumption. Leisure became a separate sphere of action, intervention and planning and developed into a global industry in its own right. In such a political, economic and cultural climate the idea of a leisure society developed and prospered at least until the economic crisis of the late seventies and early eighties. During the process of economic and political restructuring, which followed that crisis, the meaning and function of leisure changed radically.


In the Netherlands the last two decades appear to encompass the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Longer periods of education, earlier retirement, a rising level of education, a decrease in the average number of children in a household, a growing number of single-parent households and more part-time work for women: all these trends and patterns can be identified. These major changes have important implications for the allocation time, as time budgets for the period 1975-1995 have shown. Although during the nineties contractual working time has diminished, real working time increased. The overall growth of free time, one of the hallmarks of the affluent, industrial ‘golden age’, came to an end.. Time budget data show marked differences between age groups, sexes and classes in this respect. We see an increasing social inequality in time rights and in the allocation and use of time. Those in the younger age groups (under 45) have especially busy schedules since they have to combine an increasing number of tasks and duties in both the private and the public sphere. Free time becomes more and more concentrated in the third age, a privilege for senior citizens.


There is a noteworthy class aspect of labour and leisure in contemporary post-industrial Europe. In contrast to the US, blue and white collar workers now have more leisure than managers and employers. The notion of a leisure class is acquiring a different meaning from that proposed by Thorstein Veblen a hundred years ago. Workers now have more free time than their masters and have access to a vast array of conspicuous consumption. At the other end of the scale, the harried leisure class is still a privileged class, combining busy-ness in business with a high level of participation in the arts, tourism and sports. The leisure, tourism and entertainment industry is still one of the few expanding sectors in global economy. The revival of a work ethos during the neo-capitalist eighties has not prevented the emergence and democratisation of hedonistic values and the popularity of the pleasure principle. The quest for consumption is still the main driving force behind the rise of working hours. This pattern started in the United States twenty years ago, but is now a clear trend across post-industrial Europe.


During the golden age of industrial capitalism both technological development and the rise of a culture of choice were considered to be the prime movers behind the development of a leisure society. In the United States earlier predictions of a post-industrial society have recently been revived in publications such as ‘The end of work’ (Rifkin, 1995) or ‘The jobless future’ (Aronowiz and DiFazio, 1994). Rifkin argued that we are entering a new phase in history, one characterised by the steady and inevitable decline of jobs. Worldwide unemployment is now at the highest level since the great depression of the 1930s. The number of people underemployed or without work is rising sharply as millions of new entrants into the workforce find themselves victims of an extraordinary high-technology revolution. Sophisticated computers, robotics, telecommunications and other cutting-edge technologies are fast replacing human beings in virtually every sector and industry. Many jobs are never coming back while the new jobs are for a the most part low paid and temporary employment. The world, says Rifkin, is fast polarising into two potentially irreconcilable forces: on one side, an information elite that controls and manages the high-tech global economy and on the other hand a vast number of permanently displaced workers. In his view redefining the role of the individual in a near workerless society is likely to be the most pressing issue in the next decades. Alternatives to formal work will need to be devised. New approaches to providing income and purchasing power will have to be implemented. Greater reliance will need to be placed on the emerging ‘third sector’ to help the restoration of communities and the building of a civic society. Trading work for leisure should be one of the elements in that strategy.


In ‘The jobless future’ Aronowitz and DiFazio define the tendency of contemporary global economic life towards the underpaid and unpaid worker. The characteristics of the industrial world - a highly differentiated workforce, strong unions, power states that guaranteed social security and economic growth - no longer describe the new era. In their view scientifically based technological change in the midst of sharpened internationalisation of production means that there are too many workers for two few jobs. They too believe in radical changes and radical solutions. They propose alternatives to the job culture including its substitution for the "good life", and return to Hannah Ahrendt’s distinction between work and labour.


Rifkin, Aronowitz and DiFazio are the most recent members of a long-standing tradition of utopian advocates, proclaiming the substitution of the homo faber by the homo ludens and even the advent of a leisure society by the year 2000. The post-war scientific movement was supported by scholars from different backgrounds. Their ideological framework was predominantly that of Marxism or neo-Marxism, as in the case of Habermas or Gorz. A second group consists of social scientists who believed in promoting the ideals of the Enlightment, like Dumazedier and Touraine. A third cluster was inspired by the promises of technological change and progress, a process which implied liberation from traditional work, the replacement of the work ethos by a new way of life and a drastic reduction in the number of hours worked over the course of a life. In the early sixties Jean Fourastie, the French economist, predicted a working life of only 40.000 hours in the first decade of the next century. Later Andre Gorz reduced this number to 20.000 hours.


What happened to those utopian dreams and future forecasts?


Juliet Schor in her provoking1991-book ‘The overworked American. The unexpected decline of leisure’ explained why, contrary to all expectations, Americans work harder than ever. Since the end of the Second World War, American productivity has almost tripled. Most commentators, including Keynes, expected such growth in productivity to lead to substantial reductions in working hours and to create a problem of too much leisure (Schor, 1991, 1996). Even in the 1960s and the early 1970s many commentators were still predicting the coming of a leisure age and anticipating the social problems which such excessive leisure might bring. These predictions turned out to be wrong. Instead of taking the benefits of increased productivity in more free time. America has taken the benefit in increased consumption, a phenomenon Schor called ‘the work and spend cycle’. On the other hand, increasing number numbers of people say in many opinion polls that they are working more hours than they would like to and that they are willing to trade off income in order to work fewer hours. If they are telling the truth and if there is no inconsistency between attitude and behaviour, the real increase in working hours has partly to be explained by the loss of autonomy and time sovereignty. With the increasing economic pressure of the last twenty years the extent to which people as employees are expected to be on demand has increased. This form of pressure has also moved down the occupational hierarchy so that various kinds of workers, who at one time had a much greater ability to combine paid work with unpaid work, service to the community and leisure, now find that their time is more and more subject to external control: the expropriation of time is a typical feature in the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society`.


Three interrelated drivers of change have made the rigid organisation of time redundant (Mulgan and Wilkinson 1995). The first is technology which is transforming the nature of production and consumption, allowing greater flows of options and information and much tighter control over time. The second is the continuing rise of a culture of choice and freedom which encourages citizens to become consumers and to invest in time-extensive and capital-intensive consumption (Beckers 1996). The third driving force is the ongoing commodification of time, and the increasing exchange value of an hour’s work or leisure. More than ever since the rise of the modern, utilitarian concept of time, time now is a valuable resource to be managed, planned and used more intensively.


One of the most striking characteristics of post-Fordist temporal organisation is the increasing tension and gap between the way in which time is structured in global competition on the macro level and the plurality and differentiation of needs at the individual and household level. Time rights surrendered in the past, like the standard working week and working life are now under attack. At what point in the day, the week, the year and how long you have to work is more and more dependent on individual bargaining between employer and employee. Early retirement schemes have been adapted to the needs of the firm. From this perspective, the labour market is a huge storage system of unused individual time rights. So called free time is needed for regeneration from work-related stress, for re-skilling in order to be employable, and for compensating absence due to illness. Time control is intensive not only in the labour system, but also in the systems of social security, education, and consumption. In place of the ordered rhythms of the industrial age, time becomes personalised. Just as the mechanical time of the industrial era helped to speed work up, so does the programmed time of post-industrialism.


The post-Fordist relationship between working time and free time is based on interdependency, loss of sovereignty and integration. We see an increasing fusion of two worlds. Values and practices traditionally ascribed to leisure (choice, self-organisation, pleasurable environments) are now a part of human resource management. Efficiency, performance, benefit and profit, notions belonging to the world of work are now dominating leisure behaviour.

The notion of leisure in its original meaning as an independent sphere of action, and as a realm of freedom, is no longer appropriate. As Aronowitz and DiFazio stated: "The notion of free time is as distant from most people’s everyday experience as open space. Labor has been dispersed into all corners of the social world, eating space and time, crowding out any remnants of civil society that remained after the advent of consumer society, and colonising the life world. We are able neither to work nor to play; unlike the older industrial model were labor was experienced as an imposition from above, the dispersal of work makes the enemy invisible because labor now is experienced as a compulsion dictated by economic anxiety more than by the need to work."(p. 336).


From both an historic and utopian perspective free time could regain its critical function as the breeding ground for human creativity and social movements. Leisure will become temps choisi, Eigenzeit, proper time. A time policy is needed to balance flexibilization on the macro level with flexibility on the individual level. Flexibility that just enhances employer responsiveness to demand fluctuation and market uncertainty takes forms which reduce workers’ temporal autonomy. On the other hand, citizens in this dynamic risk-society need more freedom to create their own temporal arrangements over the life course.


Let me finish this contribution with some normative suggestions. In my view a time policy for the future is needed based on three interrelated values:


  1. Autonomy/time sovereignty - An increased autonomy around paid and unpaid work, leisure and leave with policies for the re-engineering of public institutions and time patterns
  2. Continuity/reliability - Alongside a more fluid and flexible environment people need temporal structures and collective rhythms to rely on.
  3. Quality - Technological change will generate a long term increase in the amount of free time. We need policies to encourage better use of time in accordance with societal, cultural and ecological considerations – re-thinking schooling and education, and the cultivation of fulfilling leisure.


There are already collective or individual attempts to move in this direction and to create more temps choisi. In her forthcoming book ‘The overspent American’ Juliet Schor (1998) describes a category of downshifters, people who have made voluntary reductions in their incomes in order to work fewer hours or gain more of their own time and to gain greater control of time.. The German sociologists Horning, Gerhard and Michailow (1995) have already undertaken an extensive study on ‘Time pioneers. Flexible working time and the new lifestyles’. Drawing on interviews with employees who have chosen to reduce their working hours from 40 to between 20 and 30 per week, they identify two categories of workers: first the ‘time conventionalists’ who see nothing unusual in their shorter working time and tend to fill their extra free time with familiar activities; and second, the ‘time pioneers’ who strive to realise their ideas of time both at work and in their everyday private lives and succeed in introducing more flexibility into their working time.


As a rule pioneers are social innovators who are in turn and in time followed by larger and larger sections of the wider. The notion of pioneering and its association with the spatial pioneer fringe in North-America is an attractive one..


In this fin de siecle we are witnessing a radical transformation in the time-spatial organisation of the world comparable to the emergence of our utilitarian concept of time in the 16th century and the implementation of industrial time in the 19th century. Social time is different from time in nature, since it is based on agreements between social actors. Social time is dynamic. Agreements can be changed and adapted to new options. This makes time a fascinating object for interdisciplinary research and social action.



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