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Every weekend could be four days long, if the will was there

In a world of iPhones and drones, people are right to wonder why they are still working so hard. The past century saw huge technological advances and yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in leisure…

Work is important, but so is fun. Andrew Matthews/PA

In a world of iPhones and drones, people are right to wonder why they are still working so hard. The past century saw huge technological advances and yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in leisure time: people are working as hard as ever.

The Easter break lasts for four days; couldn’t every weekend be like this?

Proponents of shorter work time have received two pieces of goods news recently. One is the announcement of a new law in France to prevent employees being required to read work emails out of office hours. The other is the decision in Sweden to experiment with a six-hour work day for some public sector workers.

These two proposals go against the grain in several respects. The French legislation challenges the prerogative of employers to require workers to be on call when not at work – it recognises that modern technology such as iPhones has extended work time, without additional pay, and seeks to protect and promote the “free time” of workers. The Swedish experiment challenges the norm of a 9-5 work day – it recognises the potential economic and social value of a shorter work day and is consistent with a broader movement to promote leisure time as a means to a higher standard of life.

But the two proposals are also relatively limited in scope. The French law only says that workers should not have to check their work emails after 6pm. There is a concern that workers could still feel pressurised to read emails out-of-hours and there is a question mark over whether the law will be enforceable in practice. The legislation also only covers a section of white collar workers, leaving the rest of the workforce unprotected. The Swedish experiment is limited only to public sector workers. There is no requirement on the private sector to experiment with shorter work time – the quest to deliver positive returns to shareholders is likely to mean that most private firms will continue with normal patterns of work time.

Experiments in shorter work time, however, have proved successful, suggesting that the private sector might benefit from their implementation. WK Kellog – of cereals fame – famously improved productivity at his plant by operating a six-hour work day. The economic benefits from shorter work time stem from workers being more refreshed and focused at work. Six productive hours can yield the same output as a full eight-hour work day.

Evidence shows that longer work hours make us less productive. The example of the Netherlands shows how shorter work time can be achieved without a reduction in productivity and in living standards. Longer work hours are also associated with poor health and higher mortality rates – we may be risking our lives by working longer.

As I have written before, the case for working less is ultimately about promoting a higher quality of life including a higher quality of work. It is about giving us more time to realise our creative potential in all kinds of activities; it is about achieving a life that uplifts us, rather than leaves us exhausted and frustrated.

But, given the benefits on offer, why are we not working less? Here are five reasons:

Employer power: The decline of unions coupled with a more flexible labour market (meaning less job security) have granted employers more power to maintain work hours that suit their own economic interests.

Consumerism: Workers are swayed by mass advertising and sophisticated marketing to demand more goods and services which in turn requires that they work more.

Inequality: Workers are more likely to enter into competitive forms of consumption and to feel more pressure to work longer where levels of inequality are high. Evidence shows that countries with higher inequality tend to have longer work hours.

Household debt: The build-up of household debt, especially in the US and the UK, has put added pressure on workers to work longer.

Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home.

Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work time is essential. Employers won’t voluntarily reduce work time, and workers remain unable or unwilling to opt for shorter work time themselves. We must gain the collective will to curb the time we spend at work.

Other countries can learn from the example of France and Sweden. But given the barriers to shorter work time, wider reforms will be needed if we are to ever achieve a four or three day working week.

The goal of working less may appear utopian. But the quality of our lives inside and outside work depends on its achievement.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Wilkin

    Australian Realist

    I think also people work long hours because they don't know what else to do with themselves. When faced with leisure time they start thinking which precipitates an uncomfortable existential crisis.

    Our whole culture needs to be reworked to make it possible for people to feel validated by activities that aren't about money.

    It's a very pressing problem all round.. I'm glad you've put this article up to help address it, Every little bit helps.

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    1. Regan

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Peter Wilkin

      Part of the discomfort associated with leisure time may have its roots in the Protestant work ethic - hard work as a sign of virtue and "busy-ness" as a badge of honour.

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    1. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Good comment. The coming few decades is going to see such technological change that few jobs will be best done by people anyway.

      Perhaps what is really needed is a new way of thinking about money, since in coming years the ability of individuals to earn it through their labour will be vastly diminished.

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  2. con vaitsas

    worker

    I remember during my last year of high school during the 70's when we were told by a school counsellor we should consider ourselves the fortunate generation as due to the speed of technology, we would be spending more time on leisure than actual work and our biggest concern would be to keep occupied with some sort of activity.
    Unfortunately it turned out the opposite we ended up working longer than what our parents generation and working during our own friggin time. Yet when I was a manager I used to tell staff to go home and not stay back unless they were being paid overtime, although I would stay back during my own time
    We need to change the culture of work dramatically. I know some people work long hrs for various non work related reasons such as their family life is not the best, or to avoid people/circumstances outside of work

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    1. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Gary Luke

      Another good comment. Unemployment is going to rapidly become the norm for most people within a few short years. A recent piece in one of the major news outlets pointed out that around 60% of all types of work done by Americans (which means it also applies to Australians) is already able to be done by machines more efficiently.

      The foolish arguments we allow our politicians to stage on our behalf are all merely distractions from this enormous and rapidly-approaching economic and social disaster…

      Read more
  3. Chris Bertram

    Professor

    The article claims in the third para that there is a "new law" in France to prevent employees from checking their work emails outside working hours. There is no such law, there is an agreement between unions and employers covering a small group of managers.

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  4. Cathy Watson

    Health Policy

    A shorter working week also frees people up to volunteer more, grow their own food, cook proper meals and spend more time with their family and friends- all of which is good for society. It's important that extra 'leisure time' is not wasted in passive pursuits like TV. If people aren't active in their leisure time they may as well be stuck in front of a screen at work.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Cathy Watson

      Hi Cathy, what if some people choose to watch TV, rather than volunteer and grow their own food - how would you counter this?

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    2. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to James Jenkin

      If people choose to watch TV and starve, then I suggest to you they can't be helped.

      Cathy's comment is a good one. Humans are a social species and work doesn't just put food on the table, it provides a communal activity and the interaction with others that entails. Few people choose not to interact with others. Of those who do, I suggest to you that the majority are suffering from some form of mental illness, with is either caused by, or causative of, their isolationaism. Not all and not always, of course. Some "alone time" is a normal thing for people to engage in.

      I don't think that on the whole most people find the sterile joys of endless TV repeats a terribly interesting alternative to engaging with others and otherwise expressing their own creativity.

      It's that human creativity and curiosity that I think is the key to moving to a world where human work for survival is largely non-existent.

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    3. Jane Middlemist

      citizen

      In reply to James Jenkin

      HI James: growing food is quite an interesting occupation (and can help with expenses) but so is a bit of TV interesting . So I think leisure time can be filled with a variety of activities some of which are productive and some just interesting and entertaining. Being old, I still enjoy reading books (paper ones) but younger people prefer their e-books and iPads. Never nothing to do, anyway.
      The problem for the unemployed is the constant harassment by Centrelink to 'find a job' - even when none are available.

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    4. Bob

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Cathy Watson

      They all sound like lovely activities, but I don't believe it's up to anyone else to police or judge how a person spends their leisure time. A person may be quite happy to 'waste' their time on what others see as valueless; it's their time to waste as they will.

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  5. David Spolc

    Environment dude

    Under Employer Power, perhaps it should say 'perceived' economic interests, since you present the case that fewer hours doesn't mean lower productivity.

    I would also add that international competition drives an increasing level of working hours.

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  6. Mike Jacob

    logged in via Facebook

    A six hour work day would allow me time to hold down two "full time" jobs. The result of this would be that others would see my success and want to emulate it. Then everyone would be working 12 hour days, and because there would be so much demand for jobs, wages would fall. (supply and demand) This would leave us right back where we started, with some working too many hours and some none at all. My guess is that due to the "golden rule" (he who has the gold, makes the rules), the only ones who would experience a long term benefit from this are the ones who are already at the top.

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  7. Alto Berto

    logged in via Twitter

    The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.

    How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks?

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  8. David Peetz

    Professor of Employment Relations at Griffith University

    It is a collective agreement, not a law, but it is binding and has effect as if it were a law.

    http://www.lesechos.fr/economie-politique/france/actu/0203425126713-mails-sms-telephone-syntec-reconnait-le-droit-des-cadres-a-la-deconnexion-662531.php

    It affects "affects around 250,000 employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC)" http://www.theguardian.com/money/shortcuts/2014/apr/09/french-6pm-labour-agreement-work-emails-out-of-office

    That said, it and the Swedish move provide interesting examples.

    On the third point (inequality promoting longer hours), the causal relationship is likely different to that described in the article: greater power for capital over labour likely leads to both higher inequality and longer hours.

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  9. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    And there is the additional argument that when not at "work" people might be pursuing their own "gainful employment" for their own private purposes, and the probability is very high that people will be using their non-working hours very gainfully indeed.
    That's the sort of "economy' which I would like to see, rather than the actual, distopian one catalogued by the author, which seems to carry within it the seeds of its own destruction.

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  10. Stephen Thomas

    logged in via Twitter

    If there was a four day weekend and I remained on the same salary, I would have literally no money / savings what so ever. I wouldn't say I'm frivolous with my money but most of my money gets spent in the two days I'm not at work, so to double that time would spell serious trouble for my finances! But maybe I just lack self control :)

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  11. Jeffery J. Smith

    logged in via Facebook

    Say we pass a law saying people may not work too much should do the trick. It hasn’t worked yet. What’s really needed is for everybody to get an extra income.

    From where would come the money? It could be all the money we spend for the nature we use. Government could use taxes, fees, dues, leases, etc, to redirect our spending for land (in mortgages mostly) and for resources (in leases mostly), collecting it into the public treasury. Then disburse that revenue — several trillion dollars each year in the US — as equal shares to the citizenry.

    Receiving their Citizen’s Dividend — about $1k/mnth — people could choose to work less and play more at the same standard of living. They’d not only have more fun but they’d live longer and incidentally shrink the income gap. Greater economic parity would also impart a whole world of benefits. More at Progress.org.

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