The standard full-time work week in Britain is around 40 hours long. In America, China and many other countries, it’s longer.
We spend so much of our time in paid work because a) we need/want the money, b) our employer might not offer part-time or flexi-time roles and c) our economy is set up to maximise production.
Production in the widest sense of the term, of course. We’re not just talking about factory work here — ‘production’ means production of the service you’re paid to deliver. Programming, counselling, cold-calling, whatever. You could also add d) because you love your job so much you don’t want to do anything else except sleep and commute.
However, although it’s usual to feel at least some level of job satisfaction or even passion for your work, most fully employed people do find themselves rushing around, not having time for a social life or hobbies and being stressed and tired.
The 9 to 5, Monday to Friday work week may seem like a natural and concrete fact of middle-class modern life in the Western world.
But as this popular article suggests, it’s actually a very effective way of moulding people into ideal consumers. If you have a decent amount of money but very little free time, you’re simply much more likely to spend a lot on entertainment and convenience.
This usually means cutting out the kinds of things which are healthy and environmentally sustainable but time-consuming, and encourages the purchase of more and more consumer goods.
And let’s remember that labour productivity — the amount a worker can get done in a unit of time, say an hour — has been improving since the 40 hour week came in, thanks to technology. But rather than spending less time producing the same amount, we’ve opted for producing more in the same time, to keep the economy growing.
The New Economics Foundation thinks this is a mistake, and that we’d do better to reduce standard working hours. They’ve published this report calling for a 21 hour week, which they say would also help to tackle unemployment by sharing out the available work.
Here are some of the many reasons why a shorter work week would be beneficial to our economy, our society and the environment.
- It would reduce unemployment. Reduced working hours would create more jobs as the available work would effectively be shared among more employees. As we know, unemployment causes a multitude of problems so reducing it would go a long way towards reducing public costs and allowing people to lead wealthier, healthier and more fulfilled lives.
- If accompanied by appropriate policies, it could help us transition to a post-growth economy. A shorter work week is a resource-cheap way of delivering wellbeing to overworked people, and helps to encourage (or at least facilitate) a more sustainable lifestyle. Also, the lack of growth in a post-growth economy could potentially result in a lack of jobs, so a good way of preventing this problem is to simply share the available work.
- It would make people happier. Quite simply, most people would like some time off! While still holding down a steady job, people would be able to spend more quality time with their kids, get their social life back on track, even engage in a fun hobby or two. Particularly driven individuals might choose to spend the extra time learning new skills, running a side-hustle or volunteering.
- It would reduce healthcare costs. Overworking is one of the top causes of stress, and the vast majority of illnesses are caused or exacerbated by stress. Working an 8 hour day plus another hour or two travelling to and from work leaves precious little time for making and eating a healthy home cooked meal, exercising, and getting enough sleep. These three things are vital for good health so making the time for them is logically going to lead to healthier people and take the strain off doctors, psychiatrists and hospitals.
- It would be good for the environment. Apart from encouraging less consumption of resources, a shorter work week would also allow people the time to engage in greener activities that overworked people can’t seem to find the time for. For example: walking or cycling to work, cooking from scratch, gardening, repairing things instead or buying replacements, playing with children instead of fobbing them off with extra toys, making handmade gifts… All these activities are common sense in a decarbonising world, but they require that definitely renewable and yet scarce resource: time.
- It’s politically viable. So many people would love this policy; it could be a real vote winner. This is particularly advantageous because many things that’d be great for sustainability just aren’t that popular. Like getting people to stop driving cars and buying tonnes of consumer goods, for example. We don’t need a paradigm shift or an attitude adjustment or a revolution to agree to a 4 day week — this could be implemented now, and as I said above, it would help lay the groundwork for the transition to a post-growth society.
I think it’s important to note that the New Economics Foundation understands that a work-time reduction should be accompanied with other policies, namely raising the minimum wage and progressive taxation (or perhaps even the citizen’s income). It would be nonsensical to introduce a 4 day week without any other changes because although high earners would benefit hugely from the time off, workers on minimum or low wages would be pushed into poverty.
The work-life balance is all about people engaging in enough paid work to earn a decent living, while leaving enough time for the most important things in life: family, friends and personal development. It is definitely not about stopping people meeting their needs through work. If we’re seriously considering a shorter, healthier, more sustainable work week, then we need to make sure the minimum wage is high enough for 21 (or 30, or however many) hours to equate to a decent living wage.
In that case, we could be taking a huge step towards sustainability and boosting wellbeing, public health and social cohesion all in one fell swoop.
Originally published on Earth Baby blog in December 2014 and republished on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.