Louise Mensch’s decision reminds us of the age-old question: Do we work to live or live to work?

By Sam Tomlin

This morning saw Conservative MP Louise Mensch publicly declare her resignation from her position as MP of Corby and East Northamptonshire. In a welcome change, no MP-scandal was behind this decision but simply the pressure of balancing the demands of a public life and prioritising her young family. She said she was “devastated by the necessary decision” amid reports that Conservatives in the constituency are worried about potential defeat in the by-election.

Louise Mensch has decided to step down from her role as an MP to focus on her family life

I, for one, have the utmost respect and admiration for Ms Mensch for making this decision, not primarily as an act of sacrifice for her party (and the possibility of the Conservatives losing a seat!), but for the message it sends to our ‘output’ and ‘productivity’ obsessed society. In a West driven by rampant materialism and unquestioning economic output, personal career progression and advancement can frequently trump dedication to family and community and Ms Mensch is certainly to be commended for taking this self-sacrificial decision.

There are of course questions around the decision for her husband to be based in the USA and the decision for the woman (again) to quit work ahead of the husband to care for children. However, we do not know the details of the family situation and consequently judgement must be suspended on this front.

At a personal level, this story has hit home since I took the decision almost a year ago to the day to leave a job requiring 9-6pm working hours, and 5 days a week in an office. I’m not pretending to be a martyr and I’m aware many others work far longer hours than myself, but in taking self-employment and part-time roles in central London and in my local community, my life has been enriched. Being able to spend 3-4 days in London doing ‘policy’ related work complemented by 1-2 days each week in my local community has, I believe, given me a much broader perspective on life and what is important. The relationships I have built in those 1-2 days a week and the time I’ve been able to spend simply getting to know my neighbours) have become invaluable for me and I can honestly say I have learnt more this last year doing this than my years of ‘elite’ education and ‘professional’ career-building.

As I wrote a few months ago, I’m not suggesting abandonment of a culture of hard work or a work-life beyond our immediate family or community (a return to an agrarian existence hardly seems appropriate!), but perhaps a re-evaluation of what is most important in life. If we were on a plane about to crash and got to speak to one last person – would it be our bank manager or boss at work, or the people we love to say how much we love them? I am confident of the answer most people would give, and consequently I question western society’s projected values with regard to work. How much time do we spend at each? Are we working to live or living to work?

This could be combated by governments or the work-place (already good examples of this). A four day working week may decrease economic output, but would it increase overall happiness? The most recent OECD figures seem to suggest more leisure time is associated with greater happiness, Denmark being the happiest with 16.06 hours per day (OECD average: 14.76). I’m aware of the controversy of such a statement, but perhaps these are the kinds of questions we should be discussing in the public sphere. The research of the New Economic Foundation proposing a 21 hour working week is also of interest here, as they suggest this would help us flourish through closing the inequality gap and reducing our impact on the environment among other things. It may not need a day a week less of work though as the part-time working model could extend with people taking two jobs, one of which allows you to work in the local community. The government could certainly incentivise or make easier the possibility of such working conditions.

Does our society get the balance right?

Of course, the most effective way to do this will be through being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi so eloquently put it. This is certainly a message for the professional class and those on higher incomes; it is clear that with many people struggling to pay rent and even buy food asking them to work less would seem naive and insensitive. But through the professional classes working less, more time could be given to local communities (on a voluntary or paid basis if funding can be found), and being the much needed but currently impossible Big Society helping to alleviate some of the difficulties for those particularly feeling the bite of the recession.

Irish Poet Brendan Kenelly once wrote, “If you want to serve the age, betray it”. In my experience, beginning to confound the expectations of my education and societal destiny to pursue a certain career path was not only liberating for myself, but I hope contributes, in a small way, to a constructive critique of a society that often falls short of promoting a healthy and happy lifestyle, particularly among the professional class.

  1. An interesting post, Sam. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    You mention that ‘A four day working week may decrease economic output’. I’m pleased that you use the word ‘may’ here, as it could be that a reduction in working hours simply stimulates firms and employees to innovate and to work smarter. But not necessarily harder.

    For example, many studies of the three-day week in the 1970s have shown that industrial output didn’t really decrease at all – simply that there had previously been a lot of slack and inefficiency in workplace. Given the challenge of trying to get a full week’s work done in three days, firms just got things done more efficiently. I must admit, I don’t know how the pay of employees suffered in the period, although I see little reason why they shouldn’t have been paid full wages for meeting the output required of them.

    One aspect of the Olympics which dismays me somewhat is that it offered such a great opportunity for firms to allow employees much more flexible working hours, more working from home – or indeed working from anywhere the employee feels that s/he works best – less commuting, and less sitting in a office doing work that could be conducted from anywhere in the world. In addition to cutting travel time and costs, and office overheads, this would also have made issues like childcare so much easier to cope with.

    But sadly few firms seem to have embraced this, and instead just tried to work out how to get their employees into the office all the same, sometimes on extremely inconvenient double shift patterns. I think that this was a missed opportunity.

    • Sam T said:

      Thanks Micahel. It’s good to hear from someone doing a pHD on the subject of productivity that actually working less could help us actually be more effective.

      I think pay is an interesting angle to look at here. Certainly in many of the offices I’ve been in there’s much more of a culture of staying for a set period of time than completing a job and then finishing. I will admit that at times I have completed a task for the day well and then just sat around for a bit because it would have looked bad to leave. I think that’s quite dangerous – the culture of deskfast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11759385

    • Ray said:

      Interesting Michael… The civil service (or my department at any rate) has embraced the working from home model- it was actively encouraged over the Olympics- to the point where I had to justify coming into the office!

      To provide flexible working- and for it to be taken up- I think requires senior managers to embrace the idea. It is so so convenient though for things like dentists appointments, going to the doctor, picking up kids from school etc… But there’s definitely a culture sometimes of convenience = laziness which needs to be overcome.

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