books lifestyle

Book review: Time on our side

Time on our side: why we all need a shorter working week is a collection of essays compiled by the New Economics Foundation as part of their 21 hours campaign. The theme is work time, and it makes a case for a shorter working week:

“Reducing hours of paid work … would loosen the bolts that hold up the edifice of gendered inequalities. It would make it possible to manage an economy that isn’t growing without widening income inequalities, by sharing out the work and keeping more people in paid jobs. It would challenge accepted notions of ‘normality’, changing aspirations and patterns of behaviour that are wrecking the planet and failing to improve human wellbeing. Looked at this way, time offers a powerful lever for change, with huge scope for helping to build a sustainable future.”

If you’ve read any of the literature on life after economic growth, you will have encountered similar arguments for shorter work hours. Critics dutifully cry ‘lump of labour fallacy’ and stop listening*, which is a shame, because this is a profitable idea that deserves more attention than it gets. As Time on our side demonstrates, the idea of reducing the work week is not theoretical. It has been done many times, and the results can be studied in the real world.

time on our sideGermany, for example, successfully used reduced hours to protect jobs during the recent financial crisis. The French shorter work week is derided in many circles, but has popular support and makes an interesting case study. The Netherlands and Belgium have prioritised employee flexibility in some innovative ways, while Sweden and Denmark give much greater freedom to parents to manage their hours.

There are chapters in the book exploring such things, often in considerable detail and acknowledging the controversies and failings of some schemes too. Others deal with specific issues. Valerie Bryson contributes a chapter on time and gender inequalities, explaining how women are likely to gain more from reductions in work time, redressing some imbalances in work and leisure time. Mark Davis investigates how social media is changing the way we spend our time. It’s a diverse collection of ideas, and more serious than I was expecting, with academic studies alongside the theory.

It’s also an honest book, acknowledging the complexities involved and the need for cultural change. It recognises that there may be unintended consequences – giving people more time off might encourage people to fly off on holiday more often, which would negate any environmental benefit to a shorter work week.

Importantly, it’s a practical book too. The most obvious question, if you generally agree with the arguments, is ‘what next? – How do you start?’ The book has some useful suggestions here about how to begin to change our work culture and give people greater autonomy over their time. There are ways of doing it without reducing wages, for instance, by tapping rising efficiency. (This is what has happened historically, by the way. People worked 80 hour weeks 200 years ago. We now work 42, but we’re 10 times richer.)

Other suggestions include a gradual phase-in, offering those nearing retirement a reduction in hours and hiring new staff of shorter contracts, rather than disrupting those who are happy with their hours. The book draws on ‘life course’ planning, an idea that has been used in some other countries, and that gives people freedom to work longer or shorter hours at different points in their lives. Those with small children, like myself, can work shorter hours under such a philosophy, without compromising their rights in the workplace or setting back their careers.

Lots of books on sustainability mention shorter work time. Most do so in passing, so this is a very useful contribution and well worth picking up. There are big claims made for work time reduction that may not stand up, but it can certainly play a part in re-focusing us on “non-consumption routes to well-being, ways of living focused on family, friends and community, on taking time to live and act creatively for oneself and others, and on appreciating the world mindfully.”

*The trouble with the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ is that it oversimplifies the arguments in favour of work time reductions. Most serious proponents of shorter working hours don’t think that there is a fixed amount of work in an economy – that’s just something their critics think they think.

6 comments

  1. This sounds like a good read, it’s a pity that they don’t have an ebook version for those of us outside of Europe – with exchange and shipping it would cost me nearly $45 to get a copy. Glad that there is a collection of articles like this out there, though – hopefully some more work will come from it (that will lead to less work!).

    1. Yes, this feels like an important one for postgrowthers to read, so we don’t risk making unrealistic claims around work time. I was surprised that it was only available in hardback, so it was more expensive than I’d have liked even here in the UK. I’ll drop nef a line and see if there are any plans for a digital edition.

  2. From what I have seen (I’ve only read the free sample as I I have enough other books to buy) it isn’t free from the lump of labour fallacy: “high unemployment .. can be offset, to an extent, if people work fewer hours.”

    From that introduction chapter there is a lovely contradiction. Because workers were low paid they over borrowed in the run up to the Great Recession, the solution is to cut wages as people work less.

    The idea that the productive should work less is curious. Productive people often are those with the most experience (which is why sacking older workers is often a mistake). It takes time to build up experience. If you work less you gain less experience so it takes longer for you to become more productive. An example is NHS junior doctors. Until the 1990s they use to work crazy hours (80+ hours a week) for 3 or 4 years. So over 4 years they would gain 16000 hours experience of treating patients and seeming all kinds of different cases. Now they are limited to 48 hours and so they are now qualifying with only 9600 hours and the result is they are worse doctors when they qualify. It takes them over 6 1/2 years to have the same experience as a 1990s newly qualified doctor.

    Now that is an extreme example but in my own working life I have had similar experiences. You the more you do something the better you get, there is no replacement for time on the job. So if people worked less they would rise more slowly

    1. I had a feeling you’d be here to wave the flag for the lump of labour thing. You should read the book, or you’re making exactly the mistake I mention in the footnote – this is not an unsophisticated argument. It is not a given that cutting hours in one place creates employment opportunities elsewhere, at least not in a direct ratio. However, the fallacy flagwavers throw the baby out with the bathwater, because shorter hours can create jobs if that is incentivised alongside the reduction in hours.

      But, a healthier approach to work time is about far more than creating employment or not. Ultimately the most important thing on the line here is human freedom. We have all kinds of freedoms in so many areas of life, and one of the last places where freedom is restricted is how we use our time.

      The ‘life course’ approach to work time would allow for intensive periods of work to gain experience, with less intensive periods later. You’d also find that the book doesn’t argue for cutting wages. As I mention in the review, most cuts in working hours historically haven’t been accompanied by lower wages.

      So as I say, you should read the book.

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