In 1930, famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that as a result of technology, productivity would rise, and by the start of this century, no one would have to work more than 15 hours a week. Well, scratch that prediction.
Working hours in most Western countries remain intractable or rising. The 40-hour week is often much more than that – and most people are desperate to maintain those hours, to retain their current standard of living.
When a report a couple of years ago from Britain's New Economics Foundation recommended a 21-hour workweek, reaction was often scathing, wondering what planet the analysts were on. Turns out it was planet Earth, the problem is not receding, and the think tank is now back with a book, Time On Our Side, which collects essays from a symposium held after that initial report and pushes for a less fearsome 30-hour week.
"How 'natural' is the 40-hour paid working week? How accurately does it reflect the time we actually need to exchange for money? How much money is enough?" the foundation's head of policy, Anna Coote, writes in the introduction.
"And what would happen if we exchanged less of our time for money? Suppose, for example, we did paid work for 30 instead of 40 hours each week? Life would certainly be different. Perhaps it would be better – for people, for the planet, and for our beleaguered post-industrial economy."
As Mr. Keynes predicted, productivity is rising. But as Ms. Cootes noted, in the past three decades, the worker's share of the surplus has not grown, and so we are struggling to keep afloat, working longer hours. As well, we are being encouraged to consume more – and thus need more working hours to find the money.
Robert Skidelsky, a British economic historian, notes in his essay that an inverse relationship has developed between income and work: The richer you are, the more hours you work. He looks at our "insatiable" need to consume. We want bandwagon goods, like iPods; snob goods, desired because others don't have them; and Veblen goods, named after theorist of conspicuous consumption Thorstein Veblen – goods that advertise our wealth.
"Money is for something, so that to mindlessly pursue it – to get more and more of it in order to buy more and more stuff – is rather like saying that the purpose of eating is to get fatter and fatter. One should regard that as a pathological condition," he writes.
He is currently co-writing a book that identifies seven basic things which an individual must possess to lead a good life: Health, security, respect or dignity, personality, friendship, harmony with nature, and leisure. To get that good life, he argues, we must politically alter the labour market so people have more choice over how many hours of work to supply. Also, we need to remove the pressures to consume, which distort our decisions about how much we have to work.
He wants limits on advertising to reduce the thirst to consume. "People often say this is an unacceptable infringement of liberty, but in fact the state already forbids many kinds of advertising, particularly of 'sin goods' like tobacco. And a lot of other goods are 'sin goods,' but aren't defined as such," he declares.
Long hours affect more than us individually. They affect the planet. Martin Pullinger, an ecological economist at the University of Edinburgh, said that reducing the hours of full-time workers by 20 per cent – essentially cutting back to a four-day week – would reduce the carbon footprint of all working age households by 4.2 per cent in the United Kingdom and 6.4 per cent in the Netherlands, the nations studied. Yet he notes that in all the discussions of working hours and labour policy, environmental goals are rarely mentioned or even considered.
In her overview, Ms. Coote picked out three strategies she considers plausible and promising. The first is to trade productivity gains for a bit more time away from work each year. Second, we could follow Belgium and the Netherlands by enshrining in law the right to request shorter working hours and the right to fair treatment regardless of hours worked. Essentially, workers could apply for shorter hours within agreed parameters and employers could not unreasonably deny such requests.
A third strategy would be to initiate the reductions in work hours at both ends of the age scale. As in the Netherlands, young people entering the work force could be offered a four-day week. "That way, each successive cohort adds to the numbers working a shorter week, but no one has to cut their hours. Before long, there would be a critical mass of workers on shorter hours and others may want to do the same," she writes.
At the other end of the age scale, those 55 and over could reduce their working week by one hour every year, so that someone working a 40-hour week would be only putting in 30 hours at age 65 (and 20 hours at age 75 if they continue to work).
We often say that time is money. But she fires back that it is not just money – it's more precious than that. And we need to address how much of it is spent working.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter