Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Why 'part-timer' isn't an insult

IT's one of those jolly office jokes that, for some of us, never quite manages to be funny: yelling 'part-timer!' at anyone leaving before midnight/taking a holiday/nipping out of the office for five minutes. Ho ho, very droll. Unless, of course, you actually do work less than the standard 40 hours a week.
So perhaps this is merely me being over-sensitive. But hearing Ed Miliband taunt George Osborne this lunchtime for being a 'part-time Chancellor', I admit I winced. Political insults are rarely subtle, but this one deserves a little unpicking.
The gag revolves around the fact that since Downing Street relies on Osborne for all sorts of stuff beyond his official Treasury duties, some feel he's not giving enough time to the day job. But what really gives it zing is the inference that being part-time is equivalent to being, frankly, a bit rubbish. Not trying hard enough; rather semi-detached; not quite up to it; liable to drop the ball. Niiice.
I don't, of course, think this is how Ed Miliband really sees all part-timers. But the point is that dumb prejudice is already widespread enough in corporate life, thanks, without being unthinkingly fuelled by those who know better.
Over half of mothers of small children work part-time: so do a growing proportion of men. (As luck would have it, today's employment figures show yet another rise, especially among people who wanted a full-time job but can't get one).
Too many of them already have to put up with snide remarks about their 'days off' - 24 hours with small children being, natch, a rest cure - or weird reluctance to work until midnight. Or cram five days' work into three lest anyone say they can't hack it. Or mumble apologetically that they're 'only part-time', in the same way you might say 'only junior' or 'only temporary' or 'only hanging onto this job by my fingernails, damnit.' It's not like they need reminding of what some people, in the teeth of all the evidence about flexible working, still think of them.
And besides, using 'part-timer' as an insult in this case isn't just mildly offensive but inaccurate.
The reasons the Budget has unravelled are many and various and mostly nothing to do with Osborne's hours, but if he symbolises anything at all it's not the perils of part-time but its opposite - the downside of overwork. He's doing not too little, but too much.
He's a walking advert for the benefits of tackling work intensification - taking those people who are spinning far too many plates, not all of them well, and redesigning their work to spread it between several people (some of whom might even - shock horror - then be able to work less than the 80-hour week typical for a Cabinet minister). That's hard to turn into a witty parliamentary one-liner, I grant you. But for millions of people, the 'part-timer' gag isn't that funny either.