A new book argues the way to a fairer economy and greater happiness is for all of us to start working 30-hour weeks. Sounds great, but would it work?
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.
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:
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel