A Shorter Working Week
A Shorter Working Week
Why it Works and Benefits All
A shorter working week can open avenues for social inclusion by redistributing work hours, and help us reimagine how the economy can work for us.
In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that in 100 years all economic problems would be solved; inhumane work would be done by machines, and we would have liberation from wage slavery. As new technologies replaced menial labour, time was meant to become available to pursue meaningful work, intrinsic values, and leisure.
We certainly have been inundated with new technologies since 1930, along with greater and greater efficiency on existing technologies, but work is still consuming the major proportion of our everyday lives. Australia currently has one the highest average full-time working weeks in the world. Almost 1/3 of Australians employed on a full-time basis currently work more than 50 hours a week, and that’s just paid hours, with approximately 10% more of their time at work being unpaid overtime. And work doesn’t always stop when we get home. The lines have now blurred between work hours and leisure time.
So what happened? Why haven’t we been delivered Keynes’ utopian vision of the future? The short answer is our addiction to growth. When gains are made in economic efficiency there are subsequent choices to be made. Are the available hours to be redistributed, or are jobs to be cut? Then, do we produce the same amount with less work, or do we produce more on the same amount of work?
The choice that our society has made is clear. Machines have become the vehicle of more. We chose, or were force-fed, consumption. We chose to produce more instead of work less. As Tyler Durden once said ‘Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy (things) we don’t need.’ The fortunate and privileged among us in Canberra would know this. We have the highest average disposable income in Australia, which is mostly spent on consumer goods, leaving us with the highest ecological footprint in Australia.
Not only does greater consumption lead to more work, but in a positive-feedback loop some of us are unable to escape, excessive work leads us to rely on consumption. Some of us work so much that we are led to consumption out of convenience and necessity. If we don’t have time to make it, we buy it; no time to cook, we get take-out; not time to repair things, we get new things; no time to walk, we drive.
Work can help to provide meaning, build skills, and give us a sense of pride. Work is valuable to us; but only up to a certain extent. Overwork has led to increased incidents of work related stress, sleep problems, and anxiety. Furthermore it affects our relationships, with many reporting struggles to find a work-life balance, leading to family and community issues. It seems as though we are working for the economy, instead of it working for us.
Shorter working weeks, such as a 30 hour week spread over a four day week, or six-hour working days, have been trialled, and implemented, in various cities and businesses around the world. As you would expect, feedback from workers is positive. Maybe less expected is that feedback from business has also been positive, even in cases where salaries remained as they were on longer working hours. Employees who have been fortunate enough to shift to shorter working weeks have reported a far greater work-life balance, resulting in greater happiness, better health, and improved wellbeing. Employers report that workers are more productive hour for hour on a shorter week, resulting in less time wasted and greater efficiency. They also reported reduced absenteeism through less sick leave and less stress leave, along with a reduced turnover rate. Better treatment of workers is good for business.
A shorter working week would also benefit society as a whole. Through the creation of time we can demonetise, build resilience, rediscover skills, and lower our ecological footprints. 20% less time at work gives us more time to enjoy life, build social capital, and to be of service to others and to the world. A true democracy could also be created. More time to participate is a key ingredient in creating stronger participatory democracies.
The benefits also extend to those looking for work, of which there are 750,000 such people in Australia. Whilst some people are working way too hard, others can’t even find a job. A redistribution of hours would lead to benefits on both sides, and a more equal society.
Not only would a shorter working week redistribute work but it would also redistribute unpaid work. As it currently operates, our economy could not survive without the countless hours of unpaid work by stay at home parents and carers, the overwhelming majority of which are women. The pressures on those who provide full-time care would ease as partners, family, and friends with full-time work had more time available to help. This would also provide a solid start to closing our 17% gender pay gap as more female carers are able to pursue paid employment.
A solid argument is that some people on low wages need to work more hours to pay off debt, or just to get by, and that a reduction in hours would not be fair. There are many other issues which play into this, but the answer to low pay is not to abject people to long working hours just to survive. With productivity growth outstripping wage growth in Australia workers are receiving a shrinking share of revenue. The ten richest Australians currently earn as much as the poorest four million, and the richest 20% of Australians consume 86% of goods.
A reappraisal of full-time working hours would allow for an overall rethink of our work environment, with a new emphasis on results, creativity, flexibility, and wellbeing rather than money, profit, and hours spent in the office. Employers should investigate further ways to support their employees’ lives outside of work.
A shorter working week is a small step towards much needed economic reform, and would help to reiterate that the economy is a subsystem of the whole. We need to free people to do beautiful work, or create beautiful work for people to do. Money doesn’t serve as a motivator for creativity, in fact, we do our best work when money is taken out of the picture; a timely reminder that what matters most to us is intrinsic.
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