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Why We All Need a Shorter Working Week

Infamous for its long hours, the architectural profession is emblematic of a world obsessed with speed and hard work. To unleash the full economic, environmental and creative potential of society, Anna Coote argues we must escape the treadmill

How long does it take to design a beautiful building? To perfect the playing of a piano sonata? Or to write a good novel? With most creative activities, the longer you spend practising and honing your art, the better the result will be. Yet this obvious fact contradicts the logic of efficiency, which governs most decisions today about how to run a successful economy.

Accordingly, we must strive to be more ‘productive’ by producing as many things as possible in the shortest possible span of time. But as the economist Tim Jackson has crisply pointed out, playing a symphony twice as fast as usual doesn’t make it more efficient, just a lot worse. Likewise, you can’t become a more productive carer, teacher, nurse, brain surgeon, architect or road-crossing attendant by doing your work at double speed.

So it is worth taking a fresh look at time: how we understand and experience it, and how we put it to use. Most of us live by the clock and the calendar. We think of time as divided into discrete, globally consistent units that can be measured and counted uniformly. The units are a tradeable commodity. We sell our clock-measured hours for wages and – in theory, at least – the more hours we sell the more money we get. It has become ‘normal’ to spend between 35 and 45 clock-hours in paid work each week, for somewhere between 45 and 48 weeks of the calendar year.

The New Economics Foundation’s new book, Time on Our Side, brings together experts from a range of disciplines to interrogate orthodox thinking about time and to examine the case for moving towards a shorter working week. It points out that globally uniform clock-time is a recent invention, going back no further than the Industrial Revolution. For most of human history we experienced time in different ways. Time can be elastic. The old industrial clock still ticks away in our heads, most of us in the rich world and growing numbers in the developing world live by a very different set of time-rules: much faster, much less compartmentalised, much more intense. Yet, sometimes we get more out of a day of complete inactivity than a week of frantic labour.

Time is much more than a unit of exchange. It can be a gift, a sacrifice or an object of plunder. Time can travel faster in old age than in childhood. Unpaid time spent caring for family and friends is just as precious – often more so – than paid time. Yet our economic system assigns it no value whatever. It is not officially tradeable and therefore just a lost opportunity.

Conventional wisdom has it that it makes good economic sense for us all put in long hours of paid employment, and that we should cram as much work as possible into every moment. The authors of Time on our Side challenge the orthodoxy on both counts. Trying to build a flourishing economy by speeding up the rate at which we process resources is certainly unsustainable. And our long-hours culture is bad for the economy as well as for people and the planet. We point out, for example, that so-called ‘part-time’ workers often do a better job for each hour they put in than ‘full-timers’ on 40 hours. Sick leave and absenteeism are often caused by working long hours and juggling paid employment with domestic responsibilities. Unscheduled days off and an unhappy workforce are bad for the employer’s balance sheet. A shorter working week would help to create more jobs for the unemployed. When some people work 40-plus hours and others can’t find work at all, that’s a recipe for social inequality and conflict.

Long hours of paid employment leave too little time to be parents, carers, friends, neighbours and active citizens. Squeezing parent-child relations into a few hours of scheduled ‘quality time’ is a harried, anxious way of conducting family life. Consigning friendship to Facebook cuts out the kind of care and intimacy that can only arise from hanging out together in real time and in the same place. And democracy takes time – to find out what’s going on, to form and voice opinions, to participate in decisions, to lobby and campaign. What’s more, there’s strong evidence that people who work longer hours have a larger ecological footprint, so a shorter working week will help to safeguard natural resources and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Judging by the huge volume of response the issue generates whenever it is aired through the media (as it is increasingly), nearly everyone has an interest in time. Some feel they have too much of it on their hands; others that they are impossibly busy. Many wish they had more hours to call their own, or to spend with their children or elderly parents. Some can see retirement bearing down on them and wonder how to cope with ‘doing nothing’ (which is how not working for money is routinely understood). As one of our authors, Barbara Adam, says: all times are not equal.

Apart from the immediate problem of needing a better ‘work-life balance’, there are at least three other reasons why there’s a head of steam building up behind the idea of moving to a shorter working week. One is the fading lure of consumerism. There’s good evidence that, beyond the point of meeting life’s necessities (albeit a changeable concept), buying more stuff doesn’t enhance our well-being and it’s increasingly apparent that needless consumption is taking an impossible toll on finite natural resources. Another reason is that more and more people are aware of being caught in a profound and prolonged crisis: we have a global economy that is damned if it grows (because of the likely negative impact on climate change) and damned if it doesn’t grow (because of the likely negative impact on jobs and income). Crisis provides a strong incentive to think afresh and seek out alternatives.

A third reason is this. The ‘problem that has no name’, as Betty Friedan called it, is ready to be named again. The phrase was used by Friedan in 1963, to describe the way women felt obliterated by an unquestioned division of labour and purpose, which they had not chosen and could not control. Her book The Feminine Mystique has often been credited with launching the ‘second wave’ of feminism, which raged through the later 1960s and 1970s. Fifty years on, the problem is only marginally different. It is less about enforced joblessness and housework; more about the pressures of paid work and caring. It is still about the combined impact of under-valued responsibilities and stifled opportunities, locked in place by the gendered distribution of paid and unpaid time.

Nowadays women are expected to go out to work and bring home a wage, but they must do so in ways that interfere as little as possible with, first, caring for children and, later, caring for ailing parents – and often both at once. They are undervalued in the workplace when they do so-called ‘part-time’ jobs, which attract lower wages and status because they are not seen as proper (that is, ‘full-time’) employment. The formal economy could not survive for a moment without the work women do at home. Yet in the terms of the formal economy, this work is unvalued and largely unnoticed: a problem that has no name. It is an absurd situation that is ethically indefensible and politically unsustainable. Moreover, it is avoidable.

Reducing hours of paid work for men as well as women would loosen the bolts that hold up the edifice of gendered inequalities. It would make it possible to manage an economy that isn’t growing without widening income inequalities, by sharing out the work and keeping more people in paid jobs. It would challenge accepted notions of ‘normality’, changing aspirations and patterns of behaviour that are wrecking the planet and failing to improve human well-being. Looked at this way, time offers a powerful lever for change, with huge scope for helping to build a sustainable future.

No one is suggesting that it will be easy to shift towards 30 hours as the new standard working week.  For a start, there’s the problem of low pay. This needs to be tackled from several angles: what is ‘fair’ pay and what’s a reasonable ratio between high and low pay in any organisation? What is a reasonable minimum wage or ‘living wage’ for workers who put in 30 rather than 40 or 50 hours a week? What must governments, employers, trade unions and political campaigners do to achieve levels of pay that are compatible with social justice and sustainability?  

We must improve incentives for employers. This is partly a matter of learning from successful economies where employers routinely manage workers on shorter hours. It also requires parallel strategies for training (so that work can be shared among people with the requisite skills), while managers learn to deal effectively with job-sharing, shift patterns and other arrangements for combining larger numbers of workers that are each doing fewer hours per week.

And we must make the transition gradually, with incremental changes that help to build popular support. There’s a wide variety of policies adopted by different countries for reducing working hours. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany, have considerably shorter average hours than the UK. Their economies are just as strong, or stronger. Drawing on their experience and on other ideas put forward in Time on Our Side, here are three good ways to make a start.

The first is to trade productivity gains for a bit more time off each year rather than just for money. This will work better for some kinds of employment than for others (such as education, health services and social care, where productivity is neither possible nor desirable). It is more likely to be taken up by people on middle incomes and above, but this could start to shift attitudes across the workforce. High status at work is still strongly associated with long hours and that needs to change.  

Next, we should follow Belgium and the Netherlands by enshrining in law the right to request shorter hours and the right to fair treatment. Accordingly, employees would be able to apply for shorter hours, within agreed parameters, while employers would be obliged not to withhold permission unreasonably. It would be unlawful to discriminate unfairly against individuals because they do shorter hours. This would help to improve flexibility for workers and to establish shorter-hours working as an entitlement rather than a deviation from the norm.

The third is to introduce shorter hours at both ends of the age scale. At one end, young people entering the labour market for the first time could be offered a four-day week (or its equivalent). 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.

At the other end of the age scale gradual reductions could be introduced for older workers. For example, those aged 55 and over could reduce their working week by one hour each year. Someone on 40 hours a week at 55 would then be working 30 hours a week by 65 and – if they continue in paid employment – 20 hours by 75.

Will any of this ever happen? Today’s utopian dream is often tomorrow’s normal way of life. Think of ending the slave trade, votes for women, seatbelts, smoking bans. We used to put children up chimneys. Women used to be sacked when they got married. We used to expect workers to put in 12-hour days for six days a week. Change will come – in time.

Time on our side: Why we all need a shorter Working Week

Time on Our Side: Why We All Need a Shorter Working Week, edited by Anna Coote and Jane Franklin, published by nef (the new economics foundation) in September 2013

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