Modern life isn't rubbish

20 August 2015 -


Mark Crail takes a look at why maybe the Good Old Days weren’t so great after all

Mark Crail

Just look around the office. I can almost guarantee that the blue curl of cigarette smoke so familiar in the old days will be notable only for its absence; there will be no one sleeping off the effects of a long and liquid business lunch; and unless you happen to work in a backstreet garage, there won’t even be a topless lady with big hair given pride of place on the wall.

You might feel that the Mad Men-style glamour and fun – yes fun – of the workplace of yesteryear is but a fond memory. And that’s before you even begin to get worked up about the need these days to don a hard hat and body harness when operating any piece of machinery more physically threatening than a photocopier. Health and safety gone mad, eh?

I beg to differ. If an audit of the modern working environment throws up lots of things you don’t like (hot-desking, relentless emails and labyrinthine employment regulations), then the merest glance at how things were in the Good Old Days should be enough to send you running and screaming back to the future.

Let’s start with pay. It’s been a hard few years for many of us, but sometimes we don’t realise how well off we really are. Head back to 1914, and the going rate for a train driver was 40 shillings and sixpence (£2.02) a week. Uprate that in line with the Retail Price Index and it amounts to an annual salary of £8,268. Even half a century on, in 1964, wages had climbed no higher than the equivalent of £13,260. Today, a trainee will start on £20,000 and a fully qualified train driver can take home as much as £60,000.

Similarly, a shop assistant back in 1964 could expect £7,800 a year. Even on the National Minimum Wage, their equivalent working a 37-hour week would get £12,500 nowadays. Oh, and then, of course, there were different pay rates for men and women doing the same job, all formalised and written down in black and white.

And while the money on offer has gone up, the working week has come down. Measuring what we do today is fraught with difficulties. How happy are the many part- timers who might actually want to do more? And what about all those unpaid hours of overtime? Sure, but 50 years ago, the average working week was a flat 48 hours, take it or leave it. It might be an aspiration rather than reality for some, but most full-timers today have a contract for somewhere between 35 and 40 hours.

Then there are the holidays. How we laugh as we look across the Atlantic and watch Americans struggling with their fortnight off a year. We might equally look back in time and ask our grandparents how they coped: back in 1964, 97% of us only got two weeks’ paid holiday each year, and a decade before that, more than quarter of UK workers got just a single week off. All of which was itself a massive step forward from the immediate pre-war period when a holiday meant going without wages for 60% of employees.

No wonder then there were so many strikes: it was probably the best chance you had of getting a few more days off. Official figures show that 782,000 working days were lost to strikes in 2014, leading the Conservative Party to promise to crack down on strikes if it wins the election. But a century ago, the figure was nearly 10 million, and even in 1964, in an era of economic and social consensus, it stood at 2.5 million.

And at least when we do go to work in the 21st century, we stand a better-than-average chance of making it home in one piece. Data from the Health and Safety Executive shows that, sadly, 133 people died in accidents at work last year. Half a century ago, that figure stood at 1,115; while 50 years before that there were 4,529 deaths in industrial accidents. And that’s before you factor in all those occupational illnesses – the lung diseases affecting miners, mill-hands and others forced to work in an atmosphere thick with dust of one sort or another, and the skin conditions and cancers contracted from exposure to noxious substances.

They say the past is another country. Just be thankful you don’t live there.

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