Working less is a cause close to my heart, and not just because I’m lazy – I think there are lots of things wrong with our work culture. I think it’s crazy that some of my friends work far too hard, while others can’t find work at all. Other friends are paid big salaries for jobs that add nothing to society, while others don’t get paid at all for vital things like raising children or caring for the homeless. I’m often struck by the hundreds of people on the station platforms going into work in London. How did we end up doing that, rather than creating local employment? And why do we all start and finish at the same time, when it would be so much more comfortable for everyone if we all came in and went home when it suited us. The way that work dominates our view of time fascinates me, and I did my university dissertation on the commodification of time.
Because I think there’s so much more to life than paid work, I’ve chosen to work part time. I do three days a week, two days in London and one day from home. And then I have two days for everything else that matters – working in the garden, renovating the house, talking to the neighbours, transition towns, writing, campaigning, and whatever else strikes me as worthwhile. Today I’m meeting a journalist to make a video about local food, doing some research for a documentary on consumerism, and building a herb garden outside the back door. I won’t get paid for those things, but pay shouldn’t be a prerequisite for making good things happen.
Which is why I’m excited about the latest report from the new economic foundation – 21 Hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century. “A 21-hour paid working week” say the authors, “could help address a range of urgent interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.”
The idea of cutting the work week is actually not new. Keynes believed everyone would be working a 15 hour week by now. Instead, we work harder than medieval peasants, trapped on a treadmill of maximising our income, and then buying in our happiness through consumption. It’s a pattern of life that is never satisfying, and that is destroying the environment in the process. Perhaps its time we rediscovered that old dream of a leisure society.
Interestingly, 21 hours is already about the average that people spend in paid work each week, since part-timers and those looking for work pull the average well below the nine-to-five we might expect. Although some people on low incomes are forced to work long hours to make ends meet, the richest income decile have far less free time each week. We have a real imbalance, where those on high salaries work too much, while unemployment figures remain high. Surely there’s a better way to parcel out the work?
The shortened work week also has precedents. There was an enforced three-day week in 1974, for two months. It won’t be remembered as a happy time, but it’s notable for the fact that when economists crunched all the numbers, they found that there had only been a 6% drop in industrial production. People came into work more, and worked harder when they did. France introduced a maximum 35 hour week in 2000, and 58% of people said it had a positive impact. Sarkozy overturned it in 2008, but most workplaces have left the practice in place. When accountancy firm KPMG offered its staff a four day week last year, 86% signed up, and I’ve written elsewhere about the popularity of the Kellogg’s experiment. It seems that it works, and that it’s popular.
Introducing a shortened work week wouldn’t be an easy thing to do. It would have to be done without compromising low income households, and it could face resistance from unions and employers alike. Nef suggest bringing it in incrementally, slowly reducing work hours, and consumption along with it, over the course of a decade. In ten years time we could all be working less, consuming fewer of the world’s resources, and enjoying much more time for family, friends and community. But of course you don’t have to wait for it – you can help pioneer that social change any time you like.
- Workers of the World, Relax, by Conrad Schmidt