What if weekends lasted three or even four days? What if the majority of the week could be given over to activities other than work? To even pose these questions is to invite the label of utopian thinking. While a fine idea in principle, working fewer hours is not feasible in practice. Indeed, its achievement would come at the expense of lower consumption and increased economic hardship.
For some advocates of the work ethic, the route to health and happiness lies with the perpetuation of work, not with its reduction. Work makes us healthier and happier. Such pro-work ideology is used to legitimate welfare reforms that seek to coerce the non-employed into work, whatever its pay and quality. It also offers an ideological barrier to the case for spending less time at work. Yet, the idea of working less is feasible; it is also the basis for a better standard of life. It is a mark of how we have come to accept work and its dominant influence in our lives that we do not grasp this idea more readily. A growing number of studies show the human costs of longer working hours. These include lower physical and mental health, including an added risk of having a stroke, coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
By working most of the time, we also lose time with family and friends. We lose the ability to be and do things that make life valuable and worth living. Our lives are often so tied up in the work we do that we have little time and energy to find alternative ways of living – in short, our capacity to realise our talents and potential is curtailed by the work we do.
We should challenge the work ethic and promote alternative ways of living that are less work-centred. If this reduction of time spent at work is focused on eliminating drudgery then we can also better realise the internal benefits of work itself. Working less may be a means not only to work better but also to enjoy life more.
Technological progress has advanced continuously over the past century. But not all the gains in productivity have fed through to shorter work hours. At least in modern times, these gains have been used to increase the returns of the owners of capital, often at the cost of flatlining pay for workers.
Consumerism has created powerful forces in favour of longer working hours.
The lack of progress in reducing time spent at work in modern capitalist economies reflects the influence of ideology as well as of power. On the one hand, the effects of consumerism have created powerful forces in favour of longer working hours. Workers are constantly persuaded to buy more and in turn are drawn into working more, to keep up with the latest fad or fashion and stay ahead of their peers. On the other hand, the weakened power of labour relative to capital has created an environment that has suited the extension of work time.
David Graeber makes the provocative claim that technology has advanced at the same time as what he calls “bullshit”, or pointless jobs, have multiplied. This is why we have not realised Keynes’ prediction that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks in the 21st century, as a result of technological progress. Instead, we are living in a society where work gets created that is of no social value. The reason for this, according to Graeber, is the need of the ruling class to keep workers in work. While technology with the potential to reduce work time exists, the political challenge of a working population with time on its hands makes the ruling class unwilling to realise this potential.
It’s not only workers who pay the price of long work hours. For employers too there are costs in terms of lower productivity and profitability. Yet these costs seem to go unnoticed. Here again politics may explain this neglect.
For employers too there are costs in terms of lower productivity and profitability.
Experiments in shorter working exist. Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing retailer, will allow its employees to work a four-day week. This has been widely reported in a positive way. Workers will benefit from a better work-life balance, while the firm will reap the benefits of reduced labour costs due to lower turnover costs. Yet, on closer inspection, the Uniqlo scheme has its downsides. In return for a four-day week, workers will be expected to work ten-hour shifts (a 40-hour working week will be squeezed into four days).
This is not only an extension to the normal length of the working day; it also puts at risk the potential rewards of working four days in the week. Workers may be so exhausted after working a four-day week they need a full day to recover from their previous exertions. In this case, their quality of work and life may not be enhanced at all; indeed it may be diminished, if they suffer the ill-effects of overwork.
Only a reduction in the working week to 30 hours or less can be seen as genuine progress in the achievement of shorter work time. For us to reach – and enjoy – a three or ideally a four-day weekend, we need to reimagine society in ways that subvert the prevailing work ethic. We need to embrace the idea of working less as a means to a life well lived. We need to reject the way of living that sees work as the be all and end all of life.
David Spencer is Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the University of Leeds.