Let’s work to live, not live to work

Anna Coote puts the case for a 21-hour week

May 7, 2010
4 min read

Moving towards much shorter hours of paid employment could be a critical factor in heading off environmental, social and economic catastrophe. That’s why nef (new economics foundation) has proposed a new standard of 21 hours a week – or its equivalent spread across a month or year.

We are facing a deadly combination of escalating climate change, widening social and economic inequalities, imploding financial systems and an intractable global economic downturn. These factors are closely linked. To tackle them together, we need a more equal distribution of paid and unpaid time.

In the developed world, most of us are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us. Economic growth has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption. So people have worked punishingly long hours and then borrowed to consume what they still cannot afford. Now the credit bubble has burst. Politicians are urging us to buy more things to help the economy recover and grow. Yet natural resources are critically depleted by high-rolling consumerism and the climate clock is ticking.

Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about inequalities, fragmented lives and social discontent. While the economy has grown, there has been no parallel growth in well-being. Nearly 2.5 million are unemployed, while many others find long-hours employment increasingly stressful and struggle to combine it with family responsibilities.

Leading economists are turning their attention to how we can manage with little or no economic growth, on the basis that continuing growth in the developed world cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions in time to avoid disastrous climate change. Shorter working hours are one way to reduce labour and output without intensifying hardship or widening inequalities: share out the total of paid work more evenly across the population.

This way, we could get off the consumer treadmill and leave a smaller footprint on the earth. We could spend less on energy-intensive ‘convenience’ items designed to save us time – from processed foods and household gadgets to cars and airline tickets. We’d have more time to care for friends and family, and to look after our own health. We’d have more time to keep learning and take part in local activities. We could reassess how we value different kinds of activity, regardless of whether or how it is paid.

There would be benefits for business, with more women in paid employment, more men leading rounded, balanced lives, less workplace stress and greater productivity hour for hour. The driving force towards a prosperous economy would no longer be credit-fuelled consumerism, which has proved so destructive, but financial stability, creativity and collaboration, with good work distributed fairly across the population.

Politicians of all hues remain hooked on the mantra of growth. They won’t contemplate a new politics of time (yet) because they can’t handle the cross-sectoral complexities or the long-sighted timescale, or the need for a radical shift in values and expectations. Nor can they face voters who ask them ‘How will I pay the mortgage if I work shorter hours?’

nef is not proposing sudden or imposed change, but a slow shift across a decade or more – so that wage increments could be exchanged gradually for shorter hours. There would be time to adjust incentives for employers, to discourage overtime, reduce costs per employee, improve flexibility in ways that suit employees, and extend training to offset skills shortages. There would be time to phase in a higher minimum wage and more progressive taxation, and to adjust to low-carbon lifestyles that absorb more time and less money.

Sometimes the weight of public opinion can swing from outrage and antipathy to acceptance and approval over just a few years. This happens when there’s a combination of new evidence, changing conditions, a sense of crisis and a strong campaign. There’s a growing body of evidence to support a shorter working week; circumstances are changing and there’s a mounting sense of crisis. What’s needed now is a campaign that brings together people who are unemployed, underemployed, employed, over-employed and not seeking paid work at all. We have a shared interest in finding routes to a better life for everyone, now and in future, rather than succumbing to the destructive demands of a discredited capitalist economy.

21 Hours: Why a 21-hour week can help us thrive in the 21st century, by Anna Coote, Jane Franklin and Andrew Simms, is published by nef (new economics foundation)


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant