New Internationalist

Workers of the world, relax

Issue 434

Some people work to live, others live to work. But the logic of growth means we produce more stuff with more efficient technology and less labour. So why not share those productivity gains in the form of less work, wonders Zoe Cormier?

Joshua Loft / Reuters
A smiling worker from Lehman Brothers hits the street minutes after the bankrupt company closed its doors, September 2008. Joshua Loft / Reuters

This economic crisis has left us with many memorable images: vast tent cities in the US, the richest country in the world. Hunks of marble hurled by angry anarchists beneath the Greek Parthenon, the birthplace of Western democracy. But one image sticks out as particularly memorable, if simply for its sheer quirkiness: newly laid-off employees from the bankrupt financial firm Lehman Brothers – one of the first to fall – leaving the building, office trinkets boxed up. And smiling.

Along with razed rainforests and Shanghai skyscrapers this could become one of the defining images of our era: employees happy to be ejected from their well-paid jobs.

This strange combination of joy and loss forces us to ponder a very serious question: why do we work the way we do?

We have come to see a 35-40 hour working week not only as normal but also as essential for a thriving society. But the Commissioner for Health with the UK Sustainable Development Commission begs to differ. Anna Coote argues that long work hours are linked to extreme gaps in wealth, environmental degradation, climate change and lots more besides.

As co-author of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) report 21 hours, Coote proposes that a 21-hour working week should be the norm. In some respects, it already is – each person in Britain already works an average of 20 hours a week if you spread working hours evenly across the population.

It all comes down to what we consider ‘work’: what labour we think is worth paying for. If all the time spent in the UK on unpaid labour – raising children, cooking, household chores and so on – were paid at the minimum wage, it would account for 21 per cent of the country’s GDP. ‘Informal carers’ who attend to the sick and the elderly without pay already ‘save’ the British economy $125 million year.

Rather than allowing that labour to remain unaccounted (and unappreciated), we could ‘redistribute paid labour, reduce the differential between paid and unpaid work, and make better use of human assets,’ says Coote.

Halving the normal working week could solve a litany of social problems: it could slash unemployment (as well as the attendant crime) and reduce state benefits and other social costs. Providing more free time to workers would create space in their lives to exercise, play, sleep and – put simply – enjoy life. Studies consistently show that more leisure means more productivity to boot. Health costs from stress-related illness – one of the greatest burdens on developed nations – would plummet. And gender norms could even improve: men could take on more of what is considered ‘women’s work’ – and fathers could spend increased time with their children.

Such a drastic shift couldn’t happen overnight. Changes would need to be brought in gradually – an increased minimum wage, progressive taxation and slow reductions in legal working hours. ‘This is intended more as a provocation: we want people to consider what society could look like,’ says Coote.

There will be obvious hurdles: ‘We don’t want to dump on communities that already suffer from a lack of paid work.’ Nonetheless, the report is making waves. ‘It really seems to have struck a chord,’ she admits.

Reducing unemployment and giving the overworked more free time makes intuitive sense. But on a global scale the maths becomes truly interesting: reducing working hours could be one of the keys to solving climate change. On a country-by-country basis there is a direct correlation between the average number of working hours and per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

The Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research estimates that if Americans were to work the same number of hours as Europeans (who work up to 300 hours less per year) they would reduce their carbon footprint by up to 30 per cent. Less time spent at a factory or office translates into less time spent driving to work, less energy consumed in the building or on the road, and fewer materials used in production. For example, when the state of Utah brought in a mandatory four-day working week for state employees to avoid layoffs in the wake of the 2008 recession, carbon emissions fell by 4,535 tonnes in one year. Driving public vehicles three million fewer miles cut fuel consumption by 744,000 gallons and saved $1.4 million.

Other jurisdictions have also brought in shorter working weeks as emergency measures to reduce unemployment. In 2008 France adopted a 35-hour working week and the slogan, ‘Work less, live more.’ Hard-hit Canadian auto companies have experimented with shifting to four-day weeks to avoid job losses.

Frequently, employees are extremely hostile – at first.

‘Families are working way longer than they were in the 1970s and going deeper into debt to buy bigger houses and fill them with fancier gadgets – they are on a treadmill of consumerism that is hard to get off,’ says Andrew Jackson, National Director of Social and Economic Policy with the Canadian Labour Congress. ‘But we have found that once people have moved to shorter work weeks, they are reluctant to go back – they start to live their lives in a different way.’

Once he cut his working hours Conrad Schmidt, a former software developer and founder of the Canadian Work Less Party, never looked back. ‘My life was so much better with less money but more time. I wanted to introduce other people to the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’, he says. ‘This is not about working less – it’s about doing different kinds of work and more important kinds of work.’

Schmidt sold his car to reduce his ecological footprint and suddenly found himself saving $400 a month. ‘I could have spent this on a computer or some other gadget. In other words I could have just consumed more. It was wondering what to do with my extra cash that introduced me to the Jevons Paradox,’ he says.

The 19th century British economist William Stanley Jevons found that improvements in efficiency and lower prices actually spur consumption and resource use. For example, increased gas mileage in the 1970s in response to skyrocketing oil prices led to people driving their cars more. So our working hours have only lengthened when academics and politicians believed labour-saving technologies would free us. In practice, increases in energy efficiency have historically translated into increases in energy use.

‘It is efficiency that got us in this mess in the first place,’ says Schmidt. Rather than see gains in material efficiency translate into higher consumption (or mass unemployment and demoralizing automation), we could see technological innovations and increases in efficiency do what they were supposed to: liberate us from labour.

The Work Less Party has no illusions. The goal is merely to get the message out. ‘We’ll never win a seat – but we always win the debates,’ says Schmidt.

Which makes sense, says John de Graaf, founder of the Take Back Your Time coalition. ‘All our surveys consistently show that people are most dissatisfied with two things in their lives: time and financial security – not stuff,’ he says.

Since 2004 the coalition has advocated for people to reduce their working hours voluntarily in the US. ‘There are no laws regarding paid vacations and about half the workforce took less than one paid week off last year,’ de Graaf says. ‘And yet look at Denmark – they went on a general strike to raise the legal paid vacation time from five weeks to six.’

He believes that the recession combined with the ecological crisis and widespread unhappiness in wealthy countries – the subject of his film Affluenza – could lead to a dramatic paradigm shift in how we think about work.

Changing our working week ultimately means changing the way we think about work – the question of how many hours we should work strikes at the very heart of ‘work’ itself. Is work growing a potato? Minding the kids? Fixing somebody’s bathroom sink? Organizing somebody else’s day? Putting words into a series of ones and zeros and sending them across the globe in a second? For many of us, what we do as ‘work’ is inseparable from our sense of self worth.

‘A lot of who we are has so much more to do with how we feel our talents contribute to our community and how valued we feel, rather than our ability to make lots of money,’ says de Graaf.

And that is the point, says Anna Coote. ‘One of the key findings of the 21 Hours report is that the amount of control you have over your time is almost as important as how you use that time – possibly even more important,’ says Coote. But our time, like our labour, has become commodified, she says.

Wresting back a bit of control over both would go a long way. ‘We want people to understand that this not about slacking – this about balance,’ stresses de Graaf.

More time outdoors, more time to play musical instruments and rediscover our creativity, more time with our kids, fitter bodies, reading more, cleaner air, less worrying about the fate of the planet – what’s not to like? Throw in less disparity between the rich and the poor, a more affordable standard of living and less corporate control over our time, and we approach what some might be tempted to label utopia.

But how to achieve such a society?

‘It’s all in how you package the message,’ reckons Erik Assadourian, Director of the Worldwatch Institute’s State Of The World: 2010. ‘The Take Back Your Time movement is a perfect example: instead of telling people they should want less money, tell them they should want more free time. Who on earth doesn’t want more free time?’

Telling people to buy less stuff is hard. But offering more time is easy.

‘This is the beauty of our message – rather than being gloomy and negative, “sacrifice for the sake of the planet”, we’re offering people something that they will genuinely enjoy,’ says de Graaf.

Nonetheless, re-engineering our culture won’t be easy. The biggest challenge isn’t economics or technology – it’s psychology.

‘That is the million dollar question,’ says de Graaf. ‘How to change our consciousness and our culture? Other than educating people that this is not about slacking but about balancing, nobody really has the answer yet. It will boil down to having to make the choice: time versus stuff.’

And while we can always make more stuff, we can’t make more time – each of us only has so many grains of sand in our hourglass. As difficult as our mortality may be to contemplate, we each need to learn that our lives are not going to get longer – and in fact, the stress of punishing schedules and sedentary jobs can shorten them.

There is only one way to manufacture more time: to learn how not to waste the amount we already have.

Take a break

To keep employment at the same level while productivity increases means producing more, consuming more or throwing people out of work.

• Many people work longer today than 30 years ago. Since 1981, in Britain, two-adult households have added 6 hours to their combined weekly workload.1
• The average American works 200-300 hours more every year than the average European. Reducing US working hours to European levels could cut energy/carbon use by 20-30%.1
• The Dutch have one of the shortest working weeks in the world and Holland has the highest percentage of part-time workers.2
• In Canada, the average work week increased from 44.6 to 46.3 hours from 1998 to 2005, while leisure time declined from 31.5 hours to 29.5 hours.3
• According to the International Labour Organization, 22% of the global workforce, over 620 million people, work more than 48 hours per week.

1 21 hours, www.neweconomics.org
2 State of the world 2010, ‘Reducing work time as a path to sustainability’, John de Graaf, www.worldwatch.org
3 ‘Leisure Time on the Wane in Canada’, www.irpp.org/newsroom/archive/2007/020107e.pdf

See UK Sustainable Development Commission, www.sd-commission.org.uk; Take Back Your Time, www.timeday.org and Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org

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