Towards the 21 Hour Work Week

Sustainability… it will by all accounts be a key theme of 21st century human society. Sustainable agriculture, energy use, carbon footprint, and average family size are already on the table towards informing governmental policy and economic practice. But in order to dial down in these areas we are realizing the need for a sustainable level of economic activity, which includes a finite amount of commoditized work to be divided between an increasing number of people seeking that work.

Put more simply… there may not be enough full-time jobs to go around if we hope to move towards a sustainable human society!

Growth was certainly a key theme of the previous century. The Earth’s human population tripled from under two billion in 1900 to about six billion people by 2000. During that same hundred year time period, according to Wikipedia, the GWP (gross world economic product) increased almost forty-fold (adjusted for inflation). To try and meet the rapidly growing need for food, agricultural practice moved toward monoculture with increasing use of inorganic chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers which trade short-term increases in land yield for long-term soil degradation. The massive increase in economic activity has led to comparable increases in fossil fuel use (leading to global warming), stress on other non-renewable resources, reduction in the planet’s forests and other degradations to the ecosystem.

Rates of human population growth are beginning to slow due to increasing education, government policy (particularly in China), and the growing empowerment of women to control their own bodies including the number of children they give birth to. But as more and more of the world’s population moves from subsistence to more of a “modern” industrial-consumerist economy, it is now argued that the rate of growth in economic activity needs to slow as well to prevent resource depletion and ecological disaster.

One proposed way to dial down the amount of economic activity, particularly in industrialized countries, is to redefine what is conventionally seen as full-time work.

That argument is being made by the New Economics Foundation, a progressive British think-tank focused on well-being, new forms of finance and business models, sustainable public services, and the economics of climate change.

As reported by Michael Coren in his piece “The Case For A 21-Hour Work Week”

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a “normal” 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and largely relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).

Among the fellow middle-class people that I interact with, I see this “vicious cycle” as an epidemic. We drive ourselves to work longer and harder, not only as an economic but also as a moral imperative to achieving a sort of martyrdom. It often feels to me that if you are not stressed out, not lacking sleep, not pushing yourself to the ruination of your health and well-being, that you will be judged a slacker and are destined to lose your economic lifeline to continued middle-class survival. An unsustainable obsession with work is your only ticket to heaven as well as meal-ticket on Earth.

With that ticket comes a good salary with which you may be able to purchase those vacations and other expensive creature comforts and societally acceptable (or possibly unacceptable) vices and self-medications that you hope will mitigate, at least to some degree, your otherwise debilitating routine. No wonder a growing number of Americans have the array of now common “lifestyle diseases” like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. No wonder one of our fastest growing industries is providing the health care to treat burgeoning populations with those illnesses.

One possible solution, perhaps an obvious one if we were not so obsessed with the morality of overwork and the thrill of overconsumption, is to work less. Writes Coren…

The NEF argues to achieve more satisfying lives we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to merely consuming).

Coren sites compelling reasons to do this beyond just individual quality of living…

Besides, it may be the only way a modern global society won’t overwhelm the earth’s resources. Creating EU-level living standards for the entire world by 2050 would require a six-fold increase in the size of the global economy, with potentially devastating consequences. Instead of endlessly growing GDP, maybe we need to recalibrate society to make more people happier and successful with less.

We in the industrialized countries need to cut back on our rabid overwork and overconsumption, the two being codependent with each other, and unsustainable as much of the rest of the world seeks to emulate that lifestyle. Just as well I think, because life becomes boring when its all about earning, rather than learning and pursuing our human development.

If you look at economic history since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have been moving in this direction of less time working for a paycheck. Back in the 19th century factory workers typically worked at least six or even seven days a week. It was the organization of those factory workers into unions that successfully pushed back for, alongside other reformers, the conventional forty-hour five-day work week we generally have today. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economic thinkers of the 20th century, envisioned that by the 21st century people would work only 15 to 21 hours a week, focusing most of our time on pursuits beyond economic necessity. We are certainly no where near that yet, but some European countries have pushed the average work week down below thirty hours.

Of course, how can we even begin to do this? Many of us who work full-time jobs still work just at or below what would be considered a living wage. Writes Coren…

“The proposed shift towards 21 hours must be seen in terms of a broad, incremental transition to social, economic, and environmental sustainability,” says the NEF in its report.

It could start with the higher wage jobs (like I have), perhaps initially dialing back the standard “full time equivalent” work week from 40 to say 36 hours, with an associated ten percent cut in pay. So instead of an enterprise employing 100 people at high-pay 40 hours a week (and adjusting for other compensation and employee overhead), they could employ 110 working just 36. That would be ten new high paying jobs that are not available now. (I know the math is not quite that simple but you get the idea!) After a couple years perhaps of adjustment, the conventional work-week could be reduced again to 32 hours, and so on.

The downsides of less income would hopefully be outweighed by the upsides. A less stressful life and less need to mitigate that stress with drugs, alcohol, poor diet, and other causers of our “lifestyle” diseases. More time for activities like parenting, volunteer work and self-development, that enrich individuals and the larger community in qualitative ways. The synergy of more people contributing their talents and less stewing on the sidelines. And a greater sense of community because we would be helping each other by volunteering our time along with allowing for more good-paying jobs (by more broadly sharing those work hours) rather than competing fiercely for more scarce ones.

There is an argument made by anthropologists and others that it is more natural for human beings to work just four to six hours a day for survival, that being the average “workload” of human beings during their earlier hunter-gatherer period of development. Again from the Wikipedia article on “Work Time”

Since the 1960s, the consensus among anthropologists, historians, and sociologists has been that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than is permitted by capitalist and agrarian societies; For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day. Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours… Subsequent studies in the 1970s examined the Machiguenga of the Upper Amazon and the Kayapo of Northern Brazil. These studies expanded the definition of work beyond purely hunting-gathering activities, but the overall average across the hunter-gatherer societies he studied was still below 4.86, while the maximum was below 8 hours.

Think about it! What was the whole point of civilization anyway if we just end up having less time to pursue our higher development beyond mere subsistence? Big-screen TVs?

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2 replies on “Towards the 21 Hour Work Week”

  1. Peter says:

    The argument for the shorter work week is a good one I think. If balance is concept that can really work and you can proliferate resources to more people and lessen demand for healthcare and other services that generally stab at societal prosperity then you’ve got something.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Peter… It’s good to hear a second for this idea as workable. If it can be implemented we will likely to be able to do so in a transitional fashion. For my own part, I am working on trying to create as many 32-hour workweeks for myself as possible. I get the standard holidays but a lot of vacation days per year, so if I don’t blow my days on vacations, I can arrange for maybe half my work weeks to be 32 rather than 40 hours.

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