Linda Nazareth is the Senior Fellow for Economics and Population Change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her fourth book, Work Is Not a Place: Reimagining Our Lives and Our Organizations in the Post-Jobs Economy, will be published in 2018.
How many hours a week do you want to work, really? Some people would answer none, others that they love their jobs so never watch the clock. The majority might say they would prefer to work a bit less and have more time off, but that the reality of the modern work world means they are never going to get a choice. Except that maybe they are.
In much of the developed world, we are at an inflection point for workers. On the labour demand side of the equation, workers are needed because economic activity is strong. On the labour supply side, demographics means that the work force is growing, but growing at a much slower pace than we have seen for decades.
Okay, the robots may be readying themselves to take everyone's jobs, but they are not quite ready yet. In the meantime, employers cannot afford to be as choosy as they have gotten used to and workers may not have to put up with as much. Shorter hours, along with more money and other benefits, are suddenly on the table.
If you want to get a glimpse at what the future of North America might look like, take a look at Germany. There the powerful IG Metall union just staged a strike over not wages, but rather work hours. At the end of it, they reached an agreement that allows a portion of its members (who staff companies such as Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG) to choose to work 28-hour weeks for up to two years. Union members passed up a 6.8-per-cent raise in favour of a 4.3-per-cent one in order to have the shorter workweek option.
Or look at New Zealand. There, a trustee company called Perpetual Guardian is making waves by trying out a scheme where by workers get paid for five days of work while only working for four. If the company deems it a success, it will be implemented across the rest of the company with the goal of making everyone happier and more productive. The idea has started a debate in the country as to whether shorter workweeks are feasible for more companies.
If you are reading this in North America, perhaps the word "slacker" has crossed your mind. Maybe you even see it as a plot by millennial workers, who surveys have found to actually want something called "work-life balance." Working shorter hours has never been a favoured option here for various reasons.
One is that people prefer to take money over leisure, so would never choose shorter work hours. The other is more cultural, reflecting the reality that more face time typically marks you as a more committed employee. But perhaps things are changing.
That "balance" thing used to be something HR departments talked about, although many of them went black on the subject around the same time that the global economic crisis hit. As with telecommuting and dogs in the workplace, it seems like a quaint concept for another era.
As workers get a bit of an edge, it is back on the table as an option and is one that the work force may increasingly choose. After all, as well as those leisure-loving millennials, we also now have a plethora of baby boomer workers who, approaching retirement, may favour shorter work hours.
The reality is that another era for the workplace is starting now. We are now 10 years past the economic crisis and every day brings reports of worker shortages in Canada and the United States. In December, 2017, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business reported that there was a shortage of 361,700 workers to fill positions in the private sector, the highest number ever recorded by their surveys.
Ironically, the fact that technology has made work 24/7 for many may make the case for shorter official weeks even stronger. That the wall between world and leisure is effectively blurred means that official number of hours actually worked, particularly by white-collar employees, has little to do with the number of hours that they are at work. Granting shorter workweeks may not cost employers as much as it might seem, on the surface anyway.
Perhaps the North American work force will opt for other things with their burgeoning power, things that have more to do with straight compensation. That said, working a 40- or 35-hour workweek is merely an arbitrary choice and it may well be that this is the time to debate whether it is one we opt to keep.