In the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it appears that, despite higher levels of personal prosperity, workers are more stressed and more insecure than they were 60 years ago.
According to a special Work Audit report published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to explore how the world of work in the UK has changed since the Queen’s coronation in 1952, it would seem that not everything has moved on for the better.
For example, although the available evidence points to high overall levels of job satisfaction among employees, reported rates of work-related stress have jumped over the last few decades. In addition, only a small minority of workers say that they would ‘go the extra mile’ for their employer.
These higher stress levels are the result of factors such as information overload due to the availability of so many computers and high tech gadgets today. While, on the one hand, this digital technology has enabled more employee autonomy as a result of options like homeworking, on the other, it has helped to blur the boundaries between work and non-work time and enabled more sophisticated staff monitoring and surveillance.
John Philpott, the CIPD’s chief economic adviser, pointed out that living standards had risen immeasurably since the 1950s, even if 2012 was characterised by pundits as ‘austerity Britain’.
Changing world of work
But society was “more unequal” and the pay gap had “widened markedly”, while the threat of unemployment was “an underlying concern even during good times”. As a result, “people do not seem much happier about their working lives and many exhibit the symptoms of work-related stress,” he added.
This meant that whatever the future of work held, the lesson of the last six decades was that “increased productivity and prosperity isn’t enough to enhance the common good in the workplace, or society in general”, Philpott said.
He also indicated that, while there were six million more people employed (a total of 29 million) today than there had been in the 1950s, the total number of hours worked had not increased. This was because informal ‘work-sharing’ was more common than it was, leading to a 10 hour drop in the length of the average working week.
Sixty years ago, only 4% of people worked part-time, while today one in four do (6.5 million). Moreover, in the 1950s, over two thirds of those in paid work were men and virtually all men of working age had a job (96%).
Today, however, the male share of employment has fallen to 53%, while the number of men of working age who are in work has dropped to 75%. But the proportion of women with a job has risen from 46% to 66% since the late 1950s.
Perhaps as a reflection of trade unions’ apparent difficulties in appealing to women, overall membership has dropped from 40% (9.5 million) of the total workforce in 1952 to 25% (6.5 million) in 2011.