Peter Drucker on Historical Trends in Leisure Time and Bloodless Revolutions

In the August 1996 issue of Wired magazine there is a fascinating interview with Peter Drucker, world-famous management guru. Drucker, now 82 years old, has the advantage of a long life to analyze how society has changed over time.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating changes that has taken place was touched on in last week’s historical perspective, and that is the great change in the application of work ethics. As any reader of Victorian literature will recognize, the idea of hard work as a virtue was unheard of in European society prior to this century. This was also true of other societies around the world. For example, in Japan’s 17th-century shogunate society the merchant and the laborer were considered vastly inferior to the often idle warrior class.

Proper ladies and gentlemen would have considered any sort of work as hugely degrading. On the other hand, those who catered to the upper classes worked brutally long hours. Drucker points out that when he was born, in the early part of this century, the great majority of working people worked 60 to over 70 hours a week. While we often read of the trials and tribulations of the gentry in the novels of Austen and Trollope, rarely do we see mentioned the fact that a maid was expected to stay up until the mistress came home at 3 a.m. and then bring the tea at seven the next morning.

Drucker points out that the farmer who worked 72 hours a week in the early part of the century now works six to eight hours a day, except during sowing and harvesting seasons. On the other hand, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, who once worked leisurely hours, now work from dawn to dusk. As Drucker says, “In the past, the people at the top had leisure. The people at the top now work like galley slaves. We simply have moved leisure from the top to the bottom.” And isn’t there some justice in the fact that those who make the most money tend to work the longest hours, while those who earn less are working shorter hours? This is a huge historical change, and a much under-appreciated one.

Drucker also discusses another historical phenomenon: the bloodless revolution. While political change throughout history has generally been accomplished only through violence, one of the biggest revolutions of all time occurred in the last decade when the Soviet Union dissolved itself. While there has been violence as a result of the dissolution, the initial revolution was remarkably peaceful, despite the presence of a huge and powerful military.

Previous empires — the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, most of the 19th-century colonial empires, and the Roman Empire — all fell by force. Yet in today’s world we see massive authoritarian systems such as the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent China, making the most fundamental of changes in the ways in which they operate, without the oceans of bloodshed that resulted from much less dramatic changes earlier in history. While violence in various parts of the world grabs the headlines, the reality is that more change of a fundamental nature is now taking place than ever before in history, and the amount of violence that has accompanied this change is far less than might have been expected by the standards of history.