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In praise of idleness

By Harry Throssell - posted Thursday, 5 June 2008

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seems to have forgotten his social and economic history, the philosophy of work and leisure, the ultimate goals of life. He tells workers already exhausted from very long working hours they are expected to do even more, forgetting that beyond a certain point quality of work worsens and quality of life takes a nose-dive.

In his book In Praise of Idleness (1935) Bertrand Russell wrote “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, 15 hours a day was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children … very commonly did 12 hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and the children from mischief.”

Russell recalled an “old Duchess” saying “What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.”


Russell suggested that owing to the productivity of modern machines much less work than formerly was now needed to maintain a tolerable standard of comfort. “I shall assume, in order to be quite sure of being on the safe side, that four hours work a day on the part of adults would suffice to produce as much material comfort as reasonable people ought to desire.”

Perhaps a bit over the top, but in Britain in 1832 the Reform Bill was followed by “fierce agitation of factory hands against the hard conditions of their lives, particularly in the matter of hours” (G.M.Trevelyan). A children’s charter in 1833 produced the Ten Hours Bill, limiting the daily work of women and youths, and in practice also that of the men who could not carry on factory processes alone.

Many reforms were carried out in the next half-century to make the lives of workers, including working hours, more compatible with a healthy and satisfying life, with several leading national politicians in these endeavours Tories and evangelicals.

K. Rudd is a religious man. The Workers’ Charter, 1891, the Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII, includes this passage: “It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies. Man’s powers, like his general nature, are limited, and beyond these limits he cannot go. His strength is developed and increased by use and exercise, but only on condition of due intermission and proper rest. Daily labour, therefore, should be so regulated as not to be protracted over longer hours than strength permits.”

The eight-hour day or 40-hour week movement had its origins in Britain’s Industrial Revolution where large, often unhealthy factories and long hours severely affected the health, welfare and morale of working people. The working day could range from ten to 16 hours, six days a week. Robert Owen had raised the demand for a ten-hour day as early as 1810 and instituted it in his enterprise at New Lanark. He formulated the goal of the eight-hour day in 1817 with the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”.

The International Workingmen’s Association took up the demand for an eight-hour day at its convention in Geneva in August 1866 declaring “The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive and the Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working day”.


Although there were some initial successes in achieving an eight-hour day in Australia and New Zealand in the 1840s and 1850s, most employed people had to wait until the early to mid 20th century. But that is 60 years ago.

The poem Leisure, by William Henry Davies (1871-1940) should perhaps be on K. Rudd’s mantle-piece.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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