Working less – good for more than just you!

Posted on June 1, 2010 by


These days you hear a lot of talk about consuming less. Everybody needs to cut consumption to help solve our environmental crises. But the other side of this coin is rarely mentioned, and is so obvious it is easy to miss. If we are to consume less, then we need to produce less. Hang on a minute – what does that mean? Although it sounds pretty simple and easy, producing less is going against more than a few hundred years of policy and general societal best practice. Work hard, be efficient and maximise output. And now here we are saying to consume less, yet few people have the balls to publically stand up and say we should produce less. Considering capitalism is driven by profit which itself is tied to output, it is a lot harder to say we should produce less than it is to say we should consume less. And let’s be honest; when many people say consume less, they don’t really mean it – not the people making the decisions. To get us out of the economic crisis there is in reality a universal plea from government for us to consume more, even if that means putting ourselves in debt while our jobs are on the line. Mixed messages? I would say.

Why then would producing less be such a problem? Well, our economy is reliant on growth to maintain employment. If it isn’t growing, then companies are firing staff, and there will be a lot of people without jobs and livelihoods. So the problem becomes one of producing less without mass unemployment, and there is only one solution that I know of to such a problem – work sharing. A theoretical example: if we currently have 10% unemployment and the other 90% working 40 hours, then exactly the same work could be done by everyone working 36 hours. That is zero unemployment, and everybody gets Friday afternoon off. But if we need to reduce consumption, then this will not be enough and we need to work even less than this – and (unfortunately (?)) earn less as well. Industrialisation is a transition, not an indefinite process. Our technology should have freed us from work, not just put some out of work while others continue to slave. John Maynard Keynes expected us to be working a 15 hour work week by the end of the 20th century. But instead of being given pay-rises in leisure time, we have been paying ourselves with costly consumables that come with the right (or obligation) of really quick disposal and replacement, while we are working more than ever in increasingly insecure job positions. This is not our future. Time is our reward, and as it happens, time is also far more environmentally friendly.

The new economics foundation in the UK (the nef – possibly the most enlightened ‘think-and-do tank’ around) recommends a 21 hour work week for Britain to help achieve sustainability (refer to their freely available report ‘21 hours’). As they put it, “a ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.” After all, what is so special about 40-hours, along with all the added travel time and overtime? What could we achieve if we worked less? Well, there would be challenges. Firstly, we would be earning less, perhaps in this case half of what we do now, which is manageable for the richest but not for the poorest. To counter this, we would need to save on costs, both private and public. This may require more voluntary community work, including gardening to produce cheap and local food, helping out with day-care and education, keeping the town tidy. There would also need to be more help for the poorest – perhaps higher minimum wages, or no tax for the lowest paid people, or even a universal allowance. This also means a larger burden for the richest, and a more egalitarian society. This may not sound great if your life goal is to become a billionaire and lobby for low taxes, but if we are serious about tackling social and environmental issues, then we probably cannot afford to have billionaires.

How would a shorter week come about? Undoubtedly there will be resistance from business, as shorter weeks would mean more employees and less efficiency, and ultimately fewer profits. We also should not force people to work less, which is blatantly a breach of human rights and basic freedom. Instead we should be directing policy to encourage people to make this decision, firstly by ensuring they always have the right to opt for a shorter week, and then through financial incentives which make working less achievable, affordable and desirable. It will require more than that though. Working hard is a result of a society that rewards greed and values bling. People work hard to get rich to be successful. We need a new social definition of success – perhaps where people respect the work their neighbours are putting in to the community. Admittedly this is no easy task. First step is to identify how we can get people started in that direction and this is what my thesis topic will cover, specifically looking at New Zealand as a case study. In six or so months, I will present my results. In the mean time, read 21 hours, and if you can afford, consider working less in parallel with a reduced consumption.