New study says working less could save the world
‘Time is money,’ goes the familiar saying. But a new book argues that our long working days are wreaking havoc on health and the environment. Is it time to cut down on the hours?
In 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that 21st Century workers would put in an average of just 15 hours per week. Technological progress, he believed, would more than double our productivity and eradicate the need for long working weeks.
How wrong he was. Today, British adults in full-time employment work an average of 42.7 hours per week. In places like South Korea and the USA that figure is far higher. Governments tend to see this as a good thing: the more hours we work, goes the logic, the more we get done. And a productive economy is a healthy one.
But a small band of economists are challenging this presumed logic. Far from improving our lives, they claim, long working hours are poisoning our health, our happiness and our environment – without truly helping the economy. These are the arguments outlined in a new book entitled Time On Our Side, edited by researchers from the New Economics Foundation.
It might seem absurd to suggest that working harder doesn’t benefit the economy; but there is some evidence to bear the theory out. Dutch, German and Norwegian workers, who enjoy three of the healthiest economies in Europe, work fewer hours than anybody else in the continent. The longest daily grinds, meanwhile, can be found in beleaguered Greece. And research suggests that part-timers tend to accomplish more per hour than their full-time colleagues.
Long hours stand accused of causing problems much worse than inefficiency. For one thing, the stress of overwork has been linked to mental and physical health problems. And each hour we spend at work is an hour less spent building relationships and caring for groups like children and the elderly: tasks unrecognised in productivity statistics, but vital to a flourishing society.
Then, finally, there is the environment. The book’s authors argue that the wages earned by our long hours are funnelled into a consumer lifestyle that is ‘ethically indefensible and politically unsustainable’: the more we earn, the more we buy, the more the planet suffers.
I’m sold, say many tired workers: give me a gentle 21-hour week over this soul-destroying slog any day, they say, even if it means lower wages. Time is the most precious thing we have, and we should be treasuring every hour we have. Instead we are flogging them in their thousands for money we may not even need.
Enough moaning, respond workaholics: this slacker’s manifesto is irresponsible and unrealistic. A good slog is the only way of getting anywhere in life; and besides, it is only through hard work that we can find meaning and fulfilment. Stop daydreaming of idleness and knuckle down.
- ‘Most people in modern societies need time more than money.’ Do you agree?
- Is working hard inherently good?
- Role play: stage a discussion between an employee who believes they should work fewer hours and an employer who disagrees.
- How many hours per week is it reasonable to expect people to work? Write down your own answer secretly and then compare it with the rest of the class, then calculate the average.
Some People Say...
“Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.’ Mark Twain”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’ll never work a 40-hour week: the old 9 to 5 is not for me.
- There are plenty of careers with a different working rhythm – you could be self-employed or work freelance, for instance. But don’t think that’s an easy way out: without the security of a regular contract you’ll have to be constantly looking for jobs, and you may find yourself working more instead of less.
- So basically I don’t have a choice?
- That’s not quite true. The number of people working part-time in developed countries is rising fast. That’s partly because of a shortage of full-time jobs, but for some people it may also be a positive choice. You’ll have to find ways of making ends meet on a lower wage – but if you are convinced that your time would be better spent outside the office, it may be worth looking into.
- John Maynard Keynes
- Probably the most famous and important economist of the 20th Century. Keynes challenged the classical idea that free markets would regulate themselves and argued that a healthy economy needed state investment and regulation. Economists and politicians still fiercely disagree about the accuracy of these theories today.
- A measure of end product per unit of work put in. If one worker achieves the same amount in six hours as another does in 12, they are twice as productive. Gains in productivity can come from technological improvements (a farmer with a tractor harvests crops more efficiently than a farmer with a plough), education and training, or other, less tangible sources.
- New Economics Foundation
- A left-wing think tank which campaigns for a more egalitarian and sustainable economic model. The NEF has argued that countries should not always pursue economic growth and that happiness should be a greater priority than GDP.
- Productivity ratings only measure work with measurable economic outputs. That excludes, for instance, the work of carers and often of teachers too.