Work less, live more
Drive less; fly less; buy less; eat less meat. Environmentalists are very adept at telling people what they must cut down on in the transition to a sustainable way of life. But telling people to give up enjoyable activities does not make for much of a communications strategy. The irony is that environmentalists often overlook one thing that most people would be very happy to reduce: the number of hours they spend in work.
The length of time we spend in paid work and the ways we spend our time outside of work directly affect energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. A new book, Time on Our Side, casts a spotlight on these important links, finding that a four day working week combined with a range of new career breaks could reduce the carbon emissions of working age households in Britain by 5.1 per cent, equivalent to the entire annual carbon footprint of Croatia.
Currently, people work long hours to earn money to buy things that are made and used in ways that inflict profound and irreversible environmental damage. Shorter working hours would help to break this cycle of environmentally harmful consumption.
Indeed, a shorter working week is essential for a functioning sustainable economy. As nef and others have long argued, countries with high carbon emissions need to adjust to a future with little or no economic growth. Production cannot be decarbonised far or fast enough to reconcile continuing growth in the rich world with the emissions reductions we need. But an economy that isn’t growing usually involves high levels of unemployment and widening inequalities. The solution is to cut the length of the ‘normal’ working week, thus helping to create jobs and spread paid work more evenly across the population.
People who work less tend to have a smaller ecological footprint because they have more disposable time. This makes it possible to live at a different pace, to walk and cycle, to take a train instead of a plane, to grow and cook food, to repair broken items, to care for each other – and more generally to reflect on what really makes us happy and what it takes to live sustainably.
We are led to believe that working as hard as possible for as long as possible is the best way to contribute to society. In fact, some are working impossibly long hours while many are jobless or trapped in insecure, casual, or zero-hours employment contracts. And if the economy were to return to the kinds of growth rate experienced before the 2008 crash, the environmental consequences would be catastrophic.
Our goal ought not to be to work harder and longer but to change the way we value and distribute paid and unpaid time. We can start by moving towards shorter and more flexible work hours.
Time on Our Side makes the case for a gradual transition to a 30 hour week. This can be achieved by either: a) allowing workers to trade part of their annual pay rise for more time off, b) legally obliging employers to accommodate shorter hours or c) introducing shorter hours for new entrants to the labour market and those at the ends of their careers.
For those on medium or higher incomes, a shorter working week could help to reduce unnecessary, resource-intensive consumption. For many on low incomes, however, a shorter working week would bring abject poverty. But no-one should be forced to work 40 or 50 hours a week just to get by.
Instead, we need concerted action to establish and enforce a decent living wage for all.
A shorter working week alongside a living wage would make for a fairer and healthier society as well as a more sustainable one. A world with less meat and less flying suddenly becomes more attractive alongside an extra day off.
Time on Our Side: Why we all need a shorter working week, edited by Anna Coote and Jane Franklin, is published by nef ( new economics foundation) in September 2013. £14.99 hard copy and free to download.
Anna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef. @nef
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