Blame it on our Puritan forbearers, but in America, it’s generally thought that the road to the good life generally involves work, and lots of it. Americans work longer hours than Europeans and even longer hours than their parents -- in the 1990s sociologists found Americans were working 163 more hours than they were in 1973.
But across the pond in Britain, where workers also put in longer hours than most of their European brethren, a new book is questioning if it’s time to reverse this trend. The book, titled Time on Our Side and put out by the New Economics Foundation, points out that the least crisis-hit economies in Europe, such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, have shorter work weeks but end up doing economically just as well as the UK-- if not better. Perhaps we should all start working 30-hour work weeks, it concludes.
Why might that be a good idea? As book co-author and Head of Social Policy at the NEF Anna Coote explained in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, longer hours are actually associated with a decrease in productivity, as well as squeezing those who have responsibilities outside of the workplace, creating misery (particularly for women who still do most of this caring). Summing up the book’s argument, she notes that spreading out working hours more evenly among workers would also lead to a smaller gap between the haves and the have nots:
Part-timers are more productive hour-for hour than full-timers. Sick leave and absenteeism are often caused by working long hours and juggling paid employment with domestic responsibilities. Sick workers are less productive than healthy ones. Unscheduled days off are bad for the employer's balance sheet. When some people work 40-plus hours and others can't find work at all, that's a recipe for social inequality and conflict.
How would be get from our current work marathon to more to a more manageable 30-hour week? The book offers a three-step template that calls for gradual change in norms as employers offer more time off rather than raises, governments pass legislation to protect workers’ right to shorter weeks and younger employees are slowing brought into the workforce on the new schedule. Wages would also, obviously, have to go up for those on the bottom end of the pay scale if those workers aren’t going to fall into abject poverty (though you generally get the sense the NEF is mostly looking at higher wage strivers when making its case that less is more).
Whether you think the argument in right, wrong or simply besides the point (i.e. it might be a good idea but we’ll simply never get there as people obviously consistently choose more work and more stuff over less hours and a simpler life), it’s a fascinating idea to ponder. Looking to hear the pro-shorter workweek argument in great detail? Check out this TEDx talk by Coote, laying out her organization’s position:
What do you think of this idea?