“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
So said a now notorious passage in the 2012 book Britannia Unchained, co-authored by Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore. Naturally, headlines were made by such an accusation, not least because the British have traditionally prided themselves on their ability to graft, assisted by a temperate climate and an ingrained national culture of invention and ingenuity.
But it seems all that may be on the slide. Last week, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s former chief economist, stated that a “sandwich generation” aged between 35 and 50 were footing the bill for younger and older generations who had dropped out of the workforce. An ever-diminishing number of earners is alarming enough, but then the Wall Street Journal reported that many corporate leaders advocate that employees should never give more than 85 per cent, as complete dedication is unsustainable and leads to burnout. And new figures released on Tuesday by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed UK workers are taking an average of 7.8 sick days a year, a 10-year high.
Fewer workers grafting for fewer hours? Perhaps Truss et al got it right?
Recently, a King’s College London analysis provided a stark insight into our ambivalent at best (and truculent at worst) attitudes towards the world of work. The university’s Policy Institute conducted a comparative study of public attitudes in 24 countries around the world, revealing a chronic national negativity towards work in Britain.
British people were the seventh-least likely to believe work is a duty towards society, the second-least likely to say it would be a bad thing if work was seen as less important, and the absolute-least likely to say work is very or rather important in their life.
Only three countries were more hostile than Britain to the idea that work should always come first, and only Sweden had a larger proportion of people who do not think those who do not work turn lazy.
Generational divides are clear. Millennials (14 per cent) and Gen Z (19 per cent) are almost half as likely to believe work should be prioritised above all else compared with baby boomers (28 per cent) and the pre-war generation (43 per cent).
For Liz Emerson, the CEO at research and education charity Intergenerational Foundation, this is clear evidence that the young of today are putting “purpose over paycheck”. “That may mean accepting fewer hours and/or less pay for work they value,” she says, all of which has a knock-on effect on their economic output. “We have seen an emergence of wellbeing at work in our social attitudes. Younger people want to get greater social value out of life.”
Yet these beliefs are not just held by idealistic 20-somethings new to the job market. Millennials, who are now in their late 20s to early 40s, appear to have become much more sceptical of work as they have spent more time doing it. Fourteen years ago, 41 per cent said work should always come first, but now just 14 per cent think so.
“I think some of this is likely to be about work-life balance, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Naomi Clayton, of the Learning and Work Institute. “I would say there may well be a connection between people’s attitudes to work and the pay stagnation that we’ve seen over the last almost two decades.”
Prof Bobby Duffy, who led the study, agrees. He believes the consequence of stagnant real wage growth is that “work itself has been devalued” in modern Britain. “It is a reflection of the tough economic circumstances we have been through,” he says. “In the last couple of decades we have seen wages stagnate and it is more and more difficult to get ahead based on income alone.”
The study shows that Britons’ attitudes towards work have not become less favourable overnight and have instead been declining steadily for several decades, with even the pandemic having little impact on this broader trend. Duffy’s argument is that rising living standards and falling wage growth have created a crisis of motivation because incentives to get ahead are weaker.
And despite its proponents’ enthusiasm about the supposed benefits for work-life balance, Duffy also holds that working from home and other new flexible working patterns have not delivered any increase in positivity. “We do know people really value working from home for its flexibility,” he says. “But whether that is enough to counteract the larger trend, I doubt it – partly because, in some ways, hybrid working reinforces the imbalance between work and other parts of life.”
Duffy and Clayton are both at pains to argue that our falling out of favour with the world of work is not responsible for stagnant productivity growth. “This is not an indication of ‘lazy Brits,’” Duffy summarises bluntly, pointing to Germany and Sweden, which are both much more productive than Britain despite having similarly uncertain attitudes towards work. “We have to be careful not to say that this is an indication that unmotivated Brits are holding back the economy.”
Yet it is difficult to accept that workers being less engaged by their work and increasingly focused on their private lives would not have any knock-on effect in this regard. “Where you increase worker engagement then that can lead to increases in what we would call good work,” explains Kester Brewin of the Institute for the Future of Work. “We know that it is possible to increase good work through engagement and that is what also then links to increased productivity.”