Our Life At Work: A Snapshot Of Office Life Over The Past 300 Years

October 27th, 2017

Written by Katy Winship

Times have changed… Our life at work hasn't always been as peachy as it is now. Not that long ago workers had fewer rights, worked longer hours and were entitled to fewer holidays- let's take a look back at how times have changed and consider why we’ve still got a long way to go.

In the 19th Century strike action could see you in prison

Compared to life as a worker in the early 1800’s your Monday morning in the office might not seem quite so bad- and if you didn’t like it you had to lump it- it's not like you could strike. The Combination Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800, prohibited strike action. The laws were passed as a response to radical political movements in order to restrict workers. Basically, unlike today when you hear of strikes daily, back then workers couldn’t revolt and make demands on their employers by not working.

In 1938 you were only entitled to one week’s holiday a year

The same year the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant film ‘Holiday’ came out, 1938, another law was passed- the Holidays with Pay Act. The act gave workers, whose wages were fixed by trade boards, the right to one week’s worth of holiday per year. Despite the fact that this time was the Great Depression the landmark act marked the start of the popularity of the week-long summer holiday for ordinary folk. Prior to this the bank holiday act of 1871 meant that a long weekend or a day trip to the seaside was the popular choice of the majority.

So naturally when Butlin’s holiday camps opened in 1936 it was a hit! Towards the end of the 1930's around 15 million people (1/3 of the population) were going on holiday to be beside the seaside. By the 50’s it was the norm to be entitled to 2 week’s holiday- which still is nowhere near our current minimum of 28 days.

150 years ago a 60 hour working week was average

Whilst the average person works 37 hours a week, our ancestors certainly did more- putting up to nearly double the hours in during a week, often at the weekend and in bad conditions such as overheated factories which operated 24/7.

However, despite the lower working hours, overtime is now at its highest ever...

New figures reveal British workers are on average putting in 8.4 hours of overtime each week - that's equivalent to another day in the office - or 68 days a year and often, sadly, it’s unpaid overtime. The most frequent reason given for working these overtime hours is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work. The worst offenders? Those in publishing and journalism work the most overtime per week at 10.1 hours.

…and our daily commute is taking longer than ever

According to a survey conducted in 2013 of 2,000 British workers the number of people travelling more than 90 minutes each way to work doubled from 1 in 20 to 1 in 10 in 2008. The figures appear to be growing year on year as according to the Department for Transport in 2014 we commuted an average of 10.2 miles for men and 6.7 miles for women more than we did in 1995- 5 percent higher.

Women are still putting up with workplace harassment

You just have to watch an episode of Mad Men to discover the level of treatment working women tolerated and realise how far we have come in 60 years. It’s only been a mere 97 years since women were given the right to vote so from a historical standpoint it’s still early doors in the fight for equality for women. However, from a social view point it’s galling, never mind disappointing, that we still hear daily stories of sexual harassment in the workplace. Only in the last month has the Weinstein scandal in Hollywood and the recent stories on Social media with the #Metoo exposed the level of tripe that women all over the world put up with on a daily basis. Team this with the shocking fact that there is an 18% Gender Pay gap across the UK as women take home almost a fifth less than their male counterparts and we get a picture of how far there is go in the fight for equality.

Child labour was the norm but hasn't gone away

Shockingly, in the late 1700’s it is thought that the majority (well, two thirds) of the workforce in 143 water-powered cotton mills were children. Children were exploited and seen as cheap labour so were paid as little as 10-20% of an adult male’s wage. Unfortunately there are still many places where child labour is rife- and some not as far away as you’d think. In fact, there were 1,575 referrals for labour exploitation in the UK alone in 2016, among that figure a staggering 468 were children. According to the International Labour Organization, 168 million children worldwide were engaged in child labour in 2013. Of these 168 million children, 85 million are engaged in what the ILO deems “hazardous work.” We’re talking about children as young as 4 and 5 here.

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