Back in 1930 Keynes predicted that in the future people would only work 15 hours a week. We would become so productive that we could produce everything we needed while only working a short amount of time. Our lives could then be devoted to things we love and enjoy. Instead we are in a world of extremes. Some are lost in a sea of despair and hopelessness, ashamed that they cannot find work. Others are on the verge of burnout from overwork and stress, with no time for their friends or family. We need to stop and relax and enjoy things that really matter. The solution is to reduce the working week, initially to four days and then after several years to three days. There are 3 main reasons for this, it will reduce unemployment, reduce consumerism and increase leisure time.
The main argument in favour is that it will give us more free time. After all, what is the point of having wealth if you have no time to enjoy it? Surely work should be a means to an end, not the end in itself. We should work to live not live to work. We are far more prosperous generation than our ancestors but are we happier? We are increasingly unsatisfied with modern life (I am referring to the boom times as well as the bust). Stress and overwork is damaging our health and leaving us with little time to spend with our families. Advances in technology means we can easily complete tasks that decades ago would have been enormous challenges. This is an opportunity because it means we can live prosperous lives (especially compared to the Third World) while only working a short time.
Even if a shorter working week meant less growth is that a bad thing? Growth for its own sake is the logic of a cancer cell, there is no reason why it should be the logic of our society. After all, what is the point of having all this extra money if we don’t have any time to enjoy it? We are far richer than our grandparents but are we happier? Does a healthy bank balance compensate for an unhealthy life? Are we paying for this extra money through ill health, physically and mentally? What is the point of extra money is we don’t have the time to do the things in life we really love? Is extra money really worth less time with our family and friends? Surely we should control our work and use it to improve our lives, not the other way around.
The second advantage is that a shorter working week is the only sustainable option. Our planet is running out of resources. We cannot continually produce and consume such vast amounts. Global warming will mean the greatest problem of the 21st century and all agree that to combat it we will need to consume less. There isn’t enough oil in the world to allow constantly increasing consumption. Either we continue as we are until we eventually fall off a cliff or we gradually reduce consumption to a sustainable level. If we work less and be content with things other than money, then we will not be driven to constantly live beyond our means. Less work and less money means less pollution. We will not be constantly buying junk we do not need only to throw it away, wasting valuable resources.
The third advantage is that it shares the work around. There are many people who are suffering from overwork and others suffering from under work (unemployment & poverty). We do not need to constantly work like donkeys; rather we only need a minimum to afford the basics of life. When France introduced a 35 hour week it is estimated that this created between 300,000 and 350,000 new jobs. If you cut hours by 20%, there is two possible results. Either productivity increases by 20% or the number of employees increases by 20%. Most likely there will be a mix of the two, meaning unemployment probably will decline. Demand could drop by 20% but there is no reason why people who want a product on Monday will not want it Tuesday.
The main criticism is that it is based on the “lump of labour fallacy”. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done which can be divided up, so more for you is less for me. Strangely, the same people who mock this proposal turn around and state that an increase in wages (caused by trade unions or a minimum wage) will lead to unemployment. Or that more immigrants means fewer jobs for natives. Or there is no such thing as a free lunch so more for you means less for me. Basically they argue that there is a lump of labour when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t.
Shorter working week could have beneficial effects on productivity. By reducing the level of stress and exhaustion from overwork, employees can be more productive. Overwork kills any enjoyment people have in their jobs, with a shorter working week. It would reduce absenteeism and turnover. There would be better morale which means staff would work better at their job. There is nothing worse than having to deal with an overworked stressful staff member. People would engage more with their work and be more focused and innovative. Studies on shorter hours have found that they increase job satisfaction, productivity and reduce carbon emissions through less travelling (which also reduces stress).
Some even argue that it could increase consumption as people while consume more if they have more leisure time (though this does contradict the argument above. The point is that many things can occur, even those in opposite directions). It could ease people into retirement and change the current situation where people are shocked and feeling worthless when they stop working. Most industrial accidents (which kill more people than war) are caused by overworked employees and pressurised staff forced to take short cuts.
Critics argue that it would increase labour costs and could reduce productivity as not everyone has the same skills and the replacement worker may not be as good as the original. However this misses the point of economies of scale and the division of labour which is the key lesson of the growth of economies since the Industrial Revolution. It should be noted that longer hours do not necessarily make you richer. After all it is the poorest countries in the world that work the longest. The average Greek works some of the longest hours in Europe while the average German works some of the shortest (contrary to the stereotype).
It must be very interesting for someone from the Third World to come to the First World. They would probably be impressed by the prosperity and wealth. However they would also be shocked by how little we enjoy it and how much we waste. They would be shocked by how everyone is also under pressure, always rushing somewhere, never taking the time to stop and enjoy life. If we gradually reduced how much we work we could devote ourselves to the pleasures and joys of life instead of the mundane drudgery. Work should be the means that allow us to live; it should not control our lives. If we worked three days a week, think of the boundless opportunities we would have.