21 hours – less work, more life

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.

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11 Comments on “21 hours – less work, more life”

  1. Laura Swain May 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    People live to work and I think this attitude can be traced back to, what Max Weber called ‘The Protestant work ethic’. This label is more relevant to the times in which this socioligist deemed it a phenomenon of industrial society (19th Century). But the idea of a ‘work ethic’ or a moral obligation to work oneself into the ground (in effect) with excessive hours of gainful employment dominates the culture of work.

    The Future of Work

    I work around 20hours a week and earn enough to get by. I like to have time to think. I have always been told that ‘time to think’ is a dangerous thing. I think this goes hand in hand with the notion that ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’.

  2. Laura Swain May 10, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    *Sociologist (sorry)

    • atiya April 15, 2013 at 4:14 am #

      where did you study sociology? just curious 🙂

  3. Heather December 6, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Interesting, I was working around 25 hours a week for some years, it was all I could manage, and even then it was a bit much. I think it’s a great idea for all the above reasons, plus the advantage of an employer having more staff cover more shifts. A company could have evening and weekend staff, get more work done. I had to take a year and a bit off, and I loved it even though I had no money coming in which was stressful to say the least. My husband was able to cover everything as he makes more money doing free lance work from home(plus lots of free time).

    It’s one thing if you are doing your dream work or have an important job, but most of us are just doing x, y, z to get by and it isn’t what we want to do, not fulfilling. So, for jobs like that, less hours are better. Of course income disparity is a problem, people should be paid living wages, basic necessities should be affordable or covered by subsidies etc.. I know that no matter how I work in my current job, I am not going to make enough money to improve life dramatically, so why push it? I’ve been living with a low eco footprint, consuming very little for years, I’m used to it, even if I might dream of more.

    I recently started a new job and the pay is low despite my making much more in a previous job. I feel tempted to put in more hours to make more money, but I will be sad. The thought of no time to walk to the beach, hang out at home in the sunlight, go in the forest, putter in the garden is actually very distressing. It’s winter, it’s dark when I leave, it’s dark when I get home. They also have me scheduled for brutal full time weeks when I asked for part time. They say it is because they are short staffed, and perhaps assume people want to work all the time?

    • Jeremy December 6, 2013 at 10:14 am #

      It’s interesting, isn’t it. The way I see it, a walk to the beach or puttering in the garden is a form of wealth. It’s just not financial. The economy doesn’t recognise that as wealth, so nobody counts it. And of course if you didn’t choose it and would rather have the money, it doesn’t feel much like wealth. Ultimately that makes it about freedom – the freedom to work as much or as little as we want, and it’s strange that we have so little freedom around work time.

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