Should we move to a 21 hour working week?
Authors: Katy Jones
13 January 2012
Rallying cries to knuckle down and work harder are a common reaction to difficult economic times. In an era of squeezed incomes and precarious employment situations many UK workers would think twice before cutting back their hours, instead often choosing (or indeed needing) to work beyond what is already a long working week by international standards. But is this approach sustainable and is it the only option?
Bringing together an expert panel, the New Economics Foundation in collaboration with LSE’s CASE (Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion) earlier this week hosted an event which challenged the entrenched status quo of an eight hour day, five day working week.
A report 21: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century, published by the think tank, sets out its vision for a shorter working week, arguing that this could remedy ‘overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, 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’. The rationale for this is a redistribution of work as part of a more sustainable economic strategy.
Whilst a shorter working week may appeal to many at an individual level as it offers opportunities for a more even ‘work-life’ balance and flexible working conditions, it is difficult to imagine how such a fundamental shift in attitudes could be induced for those on middle and high income levels let alone for today’s ‘Bottom Ten Million’ earning less than £15,000 per annum. As Professor Juliet Schor pointed out in the discussion- losing income is painful. This is particularly the case at a time of high inflation. Moreover, policymakers have always been reluctant to constrain working hours even to today’s typical levels.
The NEF report highlights some of the barriers to a shift towards a shorter week (including resistance from employers, employees, and policymakers, largely relating to wage reductions and civil liberties). Possible solutions were offered by last night’s panel, who advocated using productivity growth to finance hours reductions and the introduction of progressive consumption taxes which fall heavily on luxury items, although it was clear that more work needs to be done to tease out the practicalities of any related policy developments.
Nevertheless, with high unemployment to tackle, an ageing working population to sustain and a low-carbon agenda to pursue, interest in alternatives may grow. It will be interesting to see how this debate unfolds; whether the merits of a shorter working week will be accepted or whether the entrenched eight hour day, five day week pattern will remain the norm.
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