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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)

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