Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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)
The collapse of Carillion could be a watershed moment. Let's seize it to end economically disastrous outsourcing schemes. By Cat Hobbs.
Campaign groups highlight UK complicity in Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses.
Three founders of Momentum talk to Ashish Ghadiali about the two years that have transformed their lives and the fortunes of the British left.
Andrew Smith from Campaign Against the Arms Trade gives the run-down on one of the UK's most profitable - and most deadly - industries.
The real story behind the fire in Grande Synthe’s Linière refugee camp, Dunkirk. From 'Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants' by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Javier Pérez De La Cruz writes about the working class Berlin neighbourhood wrung dry by gentrifiers.
Across the world, thousands of protesters are taking on the planet’s biggest fossil fuel companies. We should support them – and if we can, we should join them. By Kara Moses
Students are suffering the effects of financial instability, stress, and slashed mental health services. Mark Crawford reports.
They're not defending free speech - they're just seeking to shore up their own power, writes Ilyas Nagdee
How can the heavily-armed Israeli state claim to be victimised by one teenage activist? By Richard Seymour.
Jeremy Hunt is poised to flog the last of the NHS
Peter Roderick sounds the alarm on an 'attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS'.
Viva Siva, 1923-2018
A. Sivanandan, who died this week, was a hugely important figure in the politics of race and class. As part of our tributes, Red Pepper is republishing this 2009 profile of him by Arun Kundnani
Sivanandan: When memory forgets a giant
Daniel Renwick calls for the whole movement to discover and remember the vital work of A. Sivanandan, who died this week
A master-work of graphic satire
American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism