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David Bouchier: The Triumph of Parkinson

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David Bouchier

There can rarely have been a confirmation of any social law as complete and comprehensive as this. After months of lockdowns, stay at home orders and confused warnings about outside activities, I think we can claim that Parkinson’s Law is finally vindicated and can stand alongside the law of gravity and the First Law of Thermodynamics as an established scientific fact.

I have a faded first-edition copy of Parkinson’s Law, by C. Northcote Parkinson, a distinguished professor of nothing in particular, which I bought in 1957 when I was a mere teenager, and which instructed me in some of the most important facts of social and sociological life just when I needed them most. The statement of Parkinson’s Law appears boldly on the first page. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson’s Law explains many things: for example why retired people always seem to be in a hurry in spite of having nothing to do, and why government agencies take twice as much time and five times as many employees to accomplish almost nothing. There is no relationship at all between the amount of work to be done and the number of staff required to do it. Each thing to be done increases in importance and complexity according to the time available.

For months now some of us at least have had extra time on our hands. We’ve not been working, going to meetings, shopping, commuting or socializing. Our days have become longer and emptier, and Parkinson’s Law has begun to manifest itself at home. Anecdotal evidence shows that most of us have not relaxed and taken a long vacation but have created more complicated and more time-consuming work substitutes to fill our idle hours.

Spring cleaning for example. By the end of May millions of houses and apartments were so clean and tidy as to be virtually uninhabitable. Closets were turned out and many long-forgotten horrors revealed. Even a few garages received the makeover treatment. Backyards and front yards were trimmed and replanted to the edge of perfection like the royal gardens at Balmoral.

As Professor Parkinson predicted, we find plenty to do when we have nothing to do. One magazine advertises scale model working steam engines that you can build in your living room if your wife will let you. Other things I’ve seen suggested are cheese making, calligraphy, all kinds of exotic embroidery and cookery projects, including one promoting “molecular cuisine,” and beer-making kits to help you recover from all the rest. Parkinson’s Law always comes to our aid – even the smallest activity can and does expand into a time-absorbing project. But the passion doesn’t necessarily last. At the beginning grocery stores nationally reported a sharp increase in the sales of baking goods and gourmet cooking ingredients. But we were soon back to white bread and canned beef stew. In April there was a 37% rise in the sale of lace underwear. It’s not clear how long that particular enthusiasm lasted.

The question is: when we think we see a glimmer of light at the end of the COVID tunnel, will we be able to get back up to speed again? We will go forward into the post-COVID era sparkling clean, tidy, well organized, with plenty of lace underwear. But what next? After having so creatively wasted our new leisure time, will we want to get back to wasting our time on mere work?

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.