The conundrum of the UK’s lagging productivity exercises some of the brightest minds in finance. There is endless talk of improved infrastructure and public sector reform. George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, has launched a plan aimed at closing the gap with the US. All well and good. But when it comes to the collapsing efficiency of our executives, the main problem is one that is far simpler to solve: everyone is always on holiday.
For a start, the school system is holding back corporate Britain. It is not the feckless kids accused of spending their time on Snapchat rather than acquiring basic skills. Nor is it the state sector, with its teachers blamed for being too stuck in their ways to prepare our young people for work. Instead it is the feted private school system that secures, for a handsome sum, access to the cut-throat global jobs market — and the scandal of the endless holidays that come with it.
There is a plethora of half terms, with a week or two in October, a week in February and another in May — truly an outrage, considering how short the term is. Between Christmas and the first week in January, the only emails one receives are automated holiday greetings. The Easter holidays are a good three and a half weeks, while on the continent a week is considered normal. The summer break lasts two and a half months.
Many places in Asia, the US or Europe — like the UK state system — allow children far less time off. There are a number of knock-on effects for private-school parents. First, it is much harder for mothers to work, given that they are generally the primary care-givers and that the cost of childcare in the UK as a percentage of average family income is the among the highest of all OECD countries. Second, even when a senior banker no longer has school-age children, they will assume others are off skiing/scuba diving/trekking with their offspring and will hold off making that call and doing that deal.
The fact that relationships between parents and children have grown closer over the decades also plays a part. City of London bigwigs are now proud to say they are spending time with their kids, and frequently launch unbidden into painful detail about the extra-curricular activities of their offspring.
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Then there is “the season”. June and the first half of July are write-offs. High flyers are busy being seen at Wimbledon for the tennis, Ascot for the races, operas at Glyndebourne, classical music at the Proms, rowing at Henley. Yet again the assumption that others will be at these events leads to a drop off in productivity. The City elite, which has always complained the about month-long absences of French counterparts, now considers it normal to take August off. The phrase: “Shall we deal with this after the summer?” is now heard in June.
Big Bang, the 1986 liberalisation of the British financial system, spelt doom for old City practices such as the three-hour lunch. A burst of American-inspired power breakfasts and a long-hours culture followed. Yet the macho phrase imported from the US — “I have no time to take holidays” — died a death a few years ago. The arrival of a set of extremely rich private equity and hedge fund potentates has made confessing that you have to stay in the office into a public admission of wage slavery. The new Masters of the Universe are in charge of their destiny — and their holidays.
Having been born in Madrid but spent my working life in London, I can only smile wryly when British friends allude to “Spanish practices”. The siesta is long gone from a country that is just emerging from its worst financial crisis in a century. And, with a host of reforms passed by the present government, the nation’s impressive productivity rises could well continue.
As for the UK, there is no easy solution to its productivity puzzle. I will do my best to consider the problem. After the summer holidays.
Karina Robinson is the chief executive of Robinson Hambro, a chairman advisory firm