Are We Working To Live, Or Living To Work? Time Should Be on Our Side


The Australian economy has been growing for 22 uninterrupted years. This means that the average Australian today produces 60 per cent more economic output in a year, than they did in 1993 in real terms (World Bank). But what do we have to show for this massive increase in output? If we look at the ways in which we are spending our time, it would seem, that we are becoming less free in many ways.

Australians are Retiring Later

The need to gradually raise the pension age is now accepted as an economic imperative across the political spectrum, due to the aging population and increases in life expectancy. But if average life expectancy increased by just over 4 percent during the last 22 years of economic growth, why isn’t our 60 per cent real increase in economic output per person covering the 4 per cent growth in life expectancy? It seems that in spite of all of our economic success, Australians will need to work until they are older.

Australians are Working Longer Hours

Average working hours for full-time workers and part-time workers have generally increased over the last 32 years, though there have been modest reductions in fulltime working hours since 2000.

Still, Australia performs poorly by international standards, coming in at 30th out of 36 OECD countries for work-life balance.

So it seems that in spite of all of our economic success, all of the hard fought productivity gains, and the increased participation rate thanks to women entering the work force, in spite of all of these gains, the average worker is working longer hours than before these gains were achieved. This doesn’t add up. If a greater proportion of Australians are working, and if Australian workers are more productive, then why on earth would we be working longer hours?

Many are Commuting longer

Commuting is unpaid labour time, as it is time set aside exclusively for the purposes of earning an income, which individuals are not compensated for.

While statistics are hard to come by, there is some evidence that Sydneysiders at least are commuting longer. Between 2001 and 2010 there was a modest rise in average commuting trip duration (1.6 minutes), with the  average commute time per trip in NSW reaching 34.3 minutes in 2012, which was longer than the LA average. So in Sydney at least, it seems that getting to and from work is taking more time, not less time, and by world standards, we’re not doing too well.

Housing Affordability is Stable

If we look at the most conservative measures of housing affordability, the proportion of the average monthly mortgage repayment to average monthly income has remained largely unchanged overall. This may seem like good news, but it is in large part  due to historically low interest rates which have offset the increasing gap between average earnings and average house prices.

So, if interest rates correct and move toward their historic average levels, many families will find it hard to sustain their home loans. Is it any wonder that many live in a state of perpetual angst? So in spite of all of this economic growth, Australian families are finding it no easier to pay off a mortgage in real terms, and are spending at best, a similar amount of time paying off a mortgage as in the early nineties.

University Education Set to Become More Expensive

In spite of all of the economic success Australians have won over the last three decades, the Abbott Government is pushing to cut funding to universities, and is pushing for university fee deregulation.

While these moves are controversial, many claim that the move is inevitable if Australian universities are to compete internationally. Such an austere plan seems strange in the wake of all of this economic success.

Yet, in the context of the unprecedented economic abundance, we find ourselves in a position where students may have to pay more for their education and workers will have to spend longer paying off their uni debt.

Is time on our side?

If we look at the dimension of time, the amount of time Australians are spending securing their economic existence is, if anything, increasing, not decreasing. Even in a country as affluent as Australia, a good many citizens still feel like they are struggling to secure the basics.

One of the goals of economic development ought to be to reduce the amount of time that citizens are required to work to secure their economic existence. Specifically, the average amount of time necessary to secure an adequate economic existence should be measured, and reducing this time ought to be part of the mix of policy goals.

Doing so implicitly recognizes the negative externalities and opportunity costs of excessive work, including profound cultural, social, and psychological consequences.

Australians shouldn’t have to exist in a perpetual state of existential angst in this land of plenty, because they are working longer to secure their basics. 

This doesn’t mean that citizens should be prevented from working longer if they are motivated to do so. Government policy in this area should be nuanced. Though similarly, the option of working fewer hours should not be made impossible due to a race to the bottom in terms of working hours.

The doomsdayers, fearful of the effect that decreases in working hours may have on economic output, would do well to look to Sweden.

Swedes enjoy relatively low working hours (1,621 per year compared to the OECD average of 1,765), yet come in at 8th in Europe for productivity according to Eurostat.

This has given the Swedes the audacity to begin trialing a  six-hour-work day. This puts the lie to the belief that there is a perfectly linear relationship between hours worked and economic output.

The dimension of time is oft neglected in the current political and economic discourse, but it is in focusing in on time, that the fallacies of neoliberal economic policies, may come into stark focus.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.