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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Would we even know what to do with a shorter workweek? Add to ...

It’s hard not to love a jolly Mexican billionaire who thinks we should all be working less. Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, could hardly be called a slacker (he taught at university while he was studying for his degree), but slacking is the banner he’s marching under.

Semi-slacking, anyway: At a recent business conference in Paraguay, Mr. Slim suggested that we reconfigure our thinking about work. A 40-hour, five-day week and a retirement age in the mid-sixties stops making sense when we’re no longer chained to the same job for 40 years and seldom succumb to tuberculosis at age 35. Instead, he suggests that people may want to work three days a week, for 11 hours a day, until the age of 70 or 75.

As someone who plans to never retire, but instead drop dead in the traces like that poor old nag Ginger in Black Beauty, I see the wisdom in Mr. Slim’s plan (he is himself 74, and still the head of his telecom company Telmex.) “With three workdays a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life,” he said.

“Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”

It’s a beautiful dream, isn’t it? And he’s not the only one. Mr. Slim belongs to a group of what I think of as the chillocrats, high-earning, high-achievers who have flown close to the sun and come back with a message: It burns. Arianna Huffington, the media mogul who seems to have more appendages for writing and organizing than your average octopus, has written a book called Thrive in which she rails against “our current notion of success … in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is considered a badge of success.”

This month, Google’s CEO Larry Page also spoke out in favour of shorter working hours as a way to alleviate unemployment, and to provide a broader sense of life satisfaction: “Most people, if I ask them, ‘Would you like an extra week of vacation?’ They raise their hands, 100 per cent of the people. ‘Two weeks [of vacation], or a four-day work week?’ Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to do their own interests.”

These are lovely utopian ideas, but they also seem quaintly out of place in an age where work has expanded, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, to invade every hour of waking life. “Work” is not something that is performed in 35 or 40 hours at a desk between nine and five, but now overflows in the morning, with a barrage of e-mails over orange juice, and into the late evening, when any number of dinners are interrupted with a brusque, “Sorry, I’ve got to take this.” It used to be that only doctors were on call all the time; now everyone is.

Take, for example, the vacations that Mr. Page rightly believes we should all be enjoying. Recent studies have shown that in Canada, where mandated holiday is already parsimonious, half of workers typically fail to take their full, paid vacation time. Having too much work to complete is cited as the major reason for not going away. In the U.S., when they finally do escape, 61 per cent of Americans take work with them. And just to make the transition from office to tent more seamless, you can now get WiFi at many national parks and campgrounds.

If you look at the OECD numbers of hours worked per year, Canada actually falls in mid-range, with far fewer than Mexico or Korea, but more than Germany or France. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians work on average 36.6 hours a week, one-and-a-half hours fewer than 40 years ago.

At the same time, studies of work-life balance reveal that we are harried to the point of distraction. In a 2012 study, one-third of Canadians said they felt they have more work than they could complete in a day. What accounts for this discrepancy? Is it the fact that we’re always at work, even when we’re not? The office door shuts, but the electronic leash tugs, and we answer the pull.

It’s fine to talk about taking more vacation or working fewer hours, but attitudes would need to be adjusted alongside punch clocks. As the Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte writes in her enlightening new book Overwhelmed, we have become addicted to busyness. Psychologists, she writes, talk of “treating burned-out clients who can’t shake the notion that the busier you are, the more you are thought of as competent, smart, successful, admired and even envied.” To be on the brink of collapse, perversely, is the height of success.

Do we even deserve shorter workweeks? Would we treat the extra time as the precious gift that it is? I’ll think about this over the next three weeks, when I’m on vacation. And no, not a “workation,” that modern abomination, but a proper holiday composed of equal parts rum and sand. See you on the other side.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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