Shorter working week is ‘inevitable’

ABOUT TIME  Shorter working hours will be better for workers and the environment - but only with greater pay equity.

ABOUT TIME Shorter working hours will be better for workers and the environment - but only if there is greater pay equity.

A shorter working week is set to become the norm, according to a report  from the new economics foundation (nef), a UK based think tank. Its study, 21 hours, forecasts a major shift in the length of the formal working week as a consequence of dealing with key economic, social and environmental problems.

The nef researchers say this can be seen as a positive opportunity, rather than a threat. According to nef, there are several forces pushing us towards a shorter working week:  lasting damage to the economy caused by the banking crisis, an increasingly divided society with too much over-work alongside too much unemployment, and an urgent need for deep cuts in environmentally damaging over-consumption.

These combine with a growing interest in people spending more time producing and delivering a share of their own goods and services – from co-produced care and neighbourhood-based activities, to food, clothing and other necessities, the report says.

“So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. And our consumption habits are squandering the earth’s natural resources,” said Anna Coote, co-author of the report and head of social policy at nef.  “Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We’d have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours. And we could even become better employees: less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive. It is time to break the power of the old industrial clock, take back our lives and work for a sustainable future.”

The report says many people in the UK work longer hours than 30 years ago. Since 1981 two-adult households have added six hours – nearly a whole working day – to their combined weekly workload. At the same time, nearly 2.5 million people in the UK can’t find jobs. Cutting labour to save money without changing working hours means some are burdened with overwork while others lose their livelihoods.

The report  authors argue that a much shorter working week could help to tackle a range of urgent and closely related 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. It would enable many more people to join the workforce and allow for measures to reduce damaging levels of inequality.

They say the nine-to-five, five-day working week is an irrelevant relic of the industrial revolution. The shift to a shorter working week would mean stress would be reduced because employees would no longer need to juggle paid-employment with home-based responsibilities and family commitments, the report concludes. It adds there is evidence that people who work shorter hours are more productive, hour for hour.

To make the plan workable would require a range of actions, including measures to make earnings more equal through a higher minimum wage and restraints on top pay.

An investigation by The Ecologist last year concluded long hours are bad for workers and should be curtailed for the sake of the workforce and the environment. The 1 September 2009 edition of the environmental magazine noted: “There’s something wonky with the way we work. Those of us with jobs are stressed when we work, and fatigued when we’re not.”

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