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Why Do We Work as Long as We Work?
Taxi Drivers and Working Time as Topics of Sociological Analysis

Marcin Serafin

The question about why people work as long as they do has been at the center of sociological investigations of capitalist societies for a long time. Marcin Serafin investigated this question by focusing on the working time of taxi drivers in Warsaw. Even though taxi drivers’ working time is not fixed by any labor contracts, it is nevertheless shaped by various political, cultural, and social factors such as state policies, religious traditions, and family relations.


Working time as a topic of research

What determines when and how long we work? This seemingly trivial question inspired some of the most important sociological investigations on the relations between the economy and society. Karl Marx used working time to understand capitalism and the class system. The length of a working day, according to Marx, emerged out of a conflict between employers and employees and was a representation of the existing balance of power between the two social classes. Max Weber used working time to show the relationship between capitalism and religion. He compared the working time of workers with various religious backgrounds and argued that Protestantism and the protestant work ethic have contributed to the emergence of capitalism.
More recently, the American sociologist Arlie Hochschild used working time to study the relationship between capitalism and gender relations. She analyzed the transformation of modern economies and the emergence of dual-earning households in which women, due to the unequal division of household labor, have to perform "two shifts": one at work and one at home. These authors, and many others who followed in their footsteps, have used working time as a way to understand the impact of political, historical, cultural, and social factors on economic processes.

« Authors have used working time as a way to understand the impact of political, historical, cultural, and social factors on economic processes. »

Taxi drivers provide an interesting case to study the social foundations of working time because, unlike many other occupations, they do not have fixed working hours. They are usually not workers employed on a contract, but rather self-employed. The question of what determines how long taxi drivers work has been a topic of ongoing scientific investigation in economics for over twenty years.
On the one side of the debate, neoclassical economists have argued that taxi drivers choose their labor strategies rationally; on the other, behavioral economists have argued that taxi drivers are irrational and use simple rules of thumb. According to behavioral economists, rather than adjusting their working time depending on the changing demand for their services, taxi drivers are guided by an "income target." They want to earn a certain amount of money each day and stop working once they reach their income target. This is “irrational” because taxi drivers end up working more than they would if they would adjust their working time to the existing demand for their service.
However, by focusing their discussion only on whether people make decisions about how long they should work rationally or irrationally, both neoclassical and behavioral economists leave out the more important question of how working time is affected by various social, cultural, and political factors. And even though taxi drivers do not have fixed working hours and are thus able to choose when they go to work, when and how long they work is nevertheless shaped by various social institutions and networks of relations, in particular by state policies, religious traditions, and family relations.


Working time and the state

Taxi drivers' working time is influenced by the state. However, the influence of the state on the working time of taxi drivers is very different from the influence of the state on many other occupations. States directly shape the working time of many of their citizens through labor laws. Labor law sets the maximum number of working hours per week, the number of days that a worker can take for holidays, the length of maternity leave, and so on. These policies shape when and how long many of us are working. However, taxi drivers in Poland, as in most other countries, are not affected by such labor regulations. Taxi drivers are not employees with a contract, but entrepreneurs who do not have fixed working hours. The state does not shape the working time of Warsaw taxi drivers directly, for example by setting a limit to the number of hours they can work. However, it does shape their working time indirectly by regulating the supply of taxi drivers and by influencing the demand for their services.
The fact that states influence the demand for taxis is to a large extent not a conscious policy, but rather the result of various decisions of the state authorities that, at first sight, have very little to do with taxi drivers or taxi markets. An example of such indirect influence of the state on the taxi market and the work of taxi drivers is the impact of the public calendar on the demand for taxis. Each state establishes a "public calendar." This public calendar is made up of national holidays, opening hours of state offices, deadlines for tax returns, elections, school holidays, and more. This calendar impacts the rhythm of social life: when we vote, when we go to work, when we return from work, when we pay taxes, when we go on holidays. Since taxis are used to coordinate some of those activities, the public calendar set by the state shapes the demand for the work of taxi drivers. If there is less work for taxi drivers in Warsaw on the 11th of November, this is because the Polish state has made this a national holiday and people are not working on that day. Another example is the existence of school holidays.

« The power of the state over markets goes beyond direct market regulation. »

During school holidays, some people leave the city to go on a family holiday, which changes the demand for taxi drivers' services. In other words, by looking at the working time of taxi drivers, we are able to see that the impact of states on markets is much greater than we usually assume. While many authors have been able to demonstrate the rise of neoliberalism and the withdrawal of the state from the economy, it is clear that the modern state continues to shape market outcomes, because the power of the state over markets goes beyond direct market regulation.
But the state influences not only the demand for taxis, but also the supply of taxi drivers. Taxi markets are often heavily regulated. At the same time there is no single model of regulation. Some cities regulate the price of the service, others the number of taxi drivers, or the type or color of the cars. In some cities there are no licenses (Stockholm); in others licenses require long-term education (London) or are an expensive commodity and investment opportunity (New York and Paris). This regulation impacts how easy it is to become a taxi driver and thus how many drivers are working in various cities. The number of taxi drivers in Warsaw has been affected by state policies over the course of the last one hundred years through regulation, deregulation, and reregulation. This changing number of taxi drivers on the streets of Warsaw (see Fig. 1) has had an impact on how much work there is for each taxi driver and how long they have to wait in between fares.


Fig. 1: Number of taxi drivers in Warsaw 1922–2012
Number of taxi drivers in Warsaw 1922–2012
There is no data for 1990–1992 when the market was deregulated. The data on the number of horse drawn cabs stopped being included in the statistical yearbooks in 1948.
Source: Statistical yearbooks for the city of Warsaw.


These market regulations have been an element of political struggles. In order to push state authorities to limit the number of taxi drivers, Warsaw taxi drivers have tried to organize collectively and influence state policy through various forms of political action. They have tried to improve their working conditions through lobbying, through court cases against illegal taxi drivers, and also by protesting in the streets. However, because taxi drivers tend to perceive themselves as entrepreneurs and other taxi drivers as competition and not fellow workers, organizing such collective action has been challenging.


Working time and religion

When and how long taxi drivers work is also influenced by religion and religious traditions. Contrary to the idea that religion no longer influences economic activities, the working time of Warsaw taxi drivers shows in what way it continues to do so. The demand for taxis in Warsaw is dependent on the liturgical year and on religious holidays like Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi, because taxi drivers help to coordinate activities that are related to the celebration of those traditions and because people do not work during those holidays. Moreover, religion continues to influence the demand for taxis because of the Polish tradition of celebrating not only birthdays but also name days. On the most popular name days, there is more work for taxi drivers as people use taxis to return home from celebrations. Religion influences when taxi drivers work not only in Warsaw, but also in many other cities across the world. On Friday evening, the demand for taxis in Warsaw is high as some social groups are coming back late from work (bankers, lawyers etc.), while others are going out to party (students), as compared to Jerusalem where there is a lack of supply of and demand for taxis due to Shabbat.


Working time and family life

Finally, the working day of taxi drivers is influenced by family relations. For example, contrary to the idea of a universal homo economicus, the working day of men taxi drivers is different from women taxi drivers as the latter are more likely to have a "second shift" at home. What goes on at home affects when and how long taxi drivers work as they try to balance their family life with their work life. Moreover, with the introduction of modern communication devices (mobile phones, and more recently smartphones), the once-clear boundary between being "at work" and being "at home" has become blurred. Throughout their day, taxi drivers remain in contact with their family members negotiating when to come home and how long they should work. On the other hand, even when they are physically at home spending time with their family, taxi drivers are able to be "in the market" and look for customers. Max Weber and, following him, many authors have argued that capitalism is a social system characterized by a separation between the market economy and the household. However, due to technological innovation, in the case of taxi drivers the separation is no longer so clear.

« What goes on at home affects when and how long taxi drivers work as they try to balance family life with work life. »

By focusing on an in-depth case study of the working time of Warsaw taxi drivers, this research returned to the tradition of using working time as a vantage point to understand the relationship between the economy and society. It was able to highlight the continued impact of various institutions (family, labor movements, church) on contemporary capitalism. While the research focused on taxi drivers, the findings can be extended beyond just taxi drivers to people who engage in non-standard employment and do not have fixed working hours. What it showed was that even though – due to market deregulation and technological innovation – the working time of a growing number of people might no longer be fixed by a labor contract, how long they work is not only the result of individual choices – as is assumed by both behavioral and neoclassical economists – but rather continues to be shaped by social, cultural, and political processes.

Marcin Serafin is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFiS PAN) and worked at the MPIfG form 2011 to 2016, first as a doctoral researcher and then as a post-doctoral fellow. For his dissertation The Temporal Structures of the Economy: The Working Day of Taxi Drivers in Warsaw he was awarded the Otto Hahn Medal by the Max Planck Society. Since April 2017 he is the head of the Max Planck Partner Group in Warsaw, which investigates the political and social foundations of the economy and fosters cooperation between MPIfG and IFiS PAN.
Research interests: economic sociology; sociological theory; field theory.
Max Planck Partner Group Sociology of Economic Life in Warsaw

Recommended reading
  • Arlie Hochschild: The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Viking 1989.
  • Cynthia Negrey: Work Time: Conflict, Control, and Change. Cambridge: Polity Press 2012.
  • Juliet Schor: The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books 1991.
  • Marcin Serafin: Cacophony of Contestation: Forms of Voice and the Warsaw Taxi Market as a Field of Struggles. European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie 57(2), 259–295 (2016).
  • Marcin Serafin: The Temporal Structures of the Economy: The Working Day of Taxi Drivers in Warsaw. Studies on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy. Cologne: International Max Planck Research School on the Social an Political Constitution of the Economy (IMPRS-SPCE) 2016.
  • Benjamin H. Snyder: The Disrupted Workplace: Time and the Moral Order of Flexible Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016.

Marcin Serafin: Wie lang ist ein Arbeitstag? Arbeitszeit im Blickpunkt der soziologischen Forschung. In: MPIfG Jahrbuch 2017-2018. Cologne: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies 2017, 69-74.

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