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A new view of work

Many of us have been raised according to the “Protestant work ethic.” That is to say, we were encouraged to work hard and thus become a successful and productive member of society. But what if this advice is wrong? As the economy reaches and breaches the limits to growth, working long hours causes market failures, giving weight to the idea that governments should intervene to reduce average working hours.

In the “empty world” of the past, hard work was a public good with few negative externalities on society. In today’s “full world,” work has become a common-pool resource, vulnerable to over-exploitation. In the absence of social or cultural norms to take care of this common-pool resource, governmental intervention is the best option for preventing market failure and encouraging an optimal amount of work. Unfortunately, our work ethic is worsening the situation.


Doesn't a shorter work week seem like a good idea?

Technological development over the past few centuries has allowed for a combination of reduced hours of work and increased consumption. Indeed, these are the only options for dealing with higher labor productivity (and labor productivity has consistently risen) while still maintaining high employment rates. But as the economy hits the limits to growth, the option to maintain employment through further increases in consumption becomes unavailable, meaning that work sharing becomes necessary. But OECD statistics reveal that over the past three decades there has been very little reduction in the amount of time people spend at work. Instead, consumption has risen drastically while unemployment has remained unacceptably high. If governments in high-consuming nations shift their focus from economic growth to wider sustainability objectives, they will quickly see that there are many benefits of a shorter work week.[1]

Here are some of those benefits:

  • Energy consumption would decrease, especially energy spent on getting to and from work;
  • Resource consumption would decrease as people trade some of their wages for more time;
  • With extra time, people could make more sustainable lifestyle choices (e.g., bike, walk, exercise, eat well, garden etc);
  • People would have more time for family and friends, less stress and better health;
  • Fewer people would be unemployed, and they could make an easier transition to retirement;
  • There would be more time for democratic participation, education, and exploration of other avenues to personal and community enrichment;
  • A better-rested workforce is likely to be more productive;
  • Both employers and employees could take advantage of more flexible employment circumstances.

Despite these and other potential benefits, we need a stronger case to justify government intervention. And that case begins with the recognition that “free” labor markets are far from free. Employees, even if they are aware of the benefits of working less, are often unable to reduce their working hours. Previous work time reductions have not originated through individual choice, but through strong union influence or state legislation, such as the Ten Hours Act (1847) in the UK or the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) in the U.S. Juliet Schor and other scholars have suggested that a rising imbalance of power between employers and employees over recent decades has led people to work longer hours than they would otherwise choose. Most workers simply can’t ask their boss for a four-day week.[2] Other analysts have suggested that the power of marketing has led people to spend above their means and then work more to pay their debts. Furthermore, in times of economic crisis, people feel anxious about losing their jobs. Such anxiety can drive them to work harder to protect themselves, resulting in a work intensification that contributes to the tragic “jobless recovery.”

If people will not or cannot choose to work less, what are the implications? Society suffers from three market failures:

  1. We have an overworked workforce, resulting in social costs from broken families to higher healthcare costs.
  2. We have a large, disenfranchised group of people who can no longer find work, a breach of their human right to work (Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
  3. Long hours contribute to greater production and, in turn, consumption, with a larger ecological burden being placed on future generations and other species.

These failures are the result of a rush to secure a share of a depleting common-pool resource. But as the amount of work becomes increasingly scarce, it is natural that people try to maintain and enhance their share — a “tragedy of the commons” scenario as described by Garrett Hardin. We can’t deal with this tragedy using outdated, empty-world tactics. In the empty world, we responded to technological improvements by increasing consumption. Moving forward, we must either learn to work less and be content with an excess of leisure, or reject the technological innovations that replace human labor — that is, reject the focus on efficiency and labor productivity.

To ensure that we do not contribute to the impending tragedy, we must all aim to work less. This also requires a social overhaul of the work ethic, and a new respect for idleness and leisure. Keynes, writing some eighty years ago, saw that adjusting to a life of leisure was the primary challenge for coming generations (us), as opposed to meeting basic needs as had been the challenge for all of human history. “To those who sweat for their daily bread, leisure is a longed-for sweet — until they get it”.[3] Personally, a shorter work week sounds fine to me.

[1] See for example, the report from the New Economics Foundation in the UK titled 21 Hours.

[2] For an interesting discussion on individual labor supply curves and hypotheses, see David George (2000): “Driven to Spend: Longer Work Hours as a Byproduct of Market Forces” in Working Time: International Trends, Theory and Policy Perspectives, (eds.) Lonnie Golden and Deborah Figart, Routledge, London. George refers to Schor’s book The Overworked American (1991) among others.

[3] Keynes, John M., 1963, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in Essays in Persuasion, (first published 1930), W. W. Norton & Co., New York.

Christian Williams recently completed a Master’s in Sustainable Development at Uppsala University (Sweden). His thesis focused on the shorter work week as part of a transition towards a steady state economy, including a case study and political analysis from New Zealand. If you would like an electronic copy of his thesis (with a more comprehensive version of the above argument), please contact him by email.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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