It’s half term and families up and down the land are patching together ways to keep the kids happy while they work. Long working hours dominate the lives of many Britons (over 6m of us work more than 45 hours a week, says the Office for National Statistics), while others suffer from having too little work. Work life balance, the minimum wage and zero hours contracts are all rightly on the political agenda. It’s time now to go a step further and start to look at a shorter working week for all.
This may seem an unlikely suggestion in this austerity age – and indeed we need to tackle other big issues, such as low pay and unaffordable housing, alongside it. But public figures including top public health doctor John Ashton, Google CEO Larry Page and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady have all recently spoken out against long working hours. There are many reasons that a shorter working week would improve our lives.
We would be sharing out the work available. Fewer people would be unemployed, and our society would be more equal. Some economists deny this, believing that the market will generate as much work as people are willing to do. A glance at the employment figures shows that the real world doesn’t work like that.
The nation’s health would improve. A shorter working week would cut the stress of over-long hours and the stress of unemployment.
We would have more time for living. Work can be fulfilling and enjoyable. But we don’t live just for work. We live to mess around and play football and party and make things and cook things and understand things and learn to do new things. We would have more time to look after each other. Children and older people need care. We all need care and support from time to time. And we would have more time to create our communities. If all our energy goes into work, little is left to put into the community spider’s web of connections and favours and reciprocation and small organisations.
We could work more productively. People who work shorter hours get more done per hour. And we could work more innovatively. We come up with ideas and inventions when our minds are fresh and while doing something else, not when we are exhausted.
In the longer term, finally, we could start to look as a society at what work we need and want to do. Crucial caring, teaching and creative work is undervalued, and the environment can’t take all the stuff we produce and the waste we generate. Perhaps, after all we don’t want to leave it so much to the market to decide what work we do.
Organisations such as the New Economics Foundation are researching these matters, and real life experiments are being conducted, such as in Gothenberg, Sweden, which is trialling a 30-hour week for public sector workers.
Life is short. But how many of us spend most of our lives rushed off our feet trying to do more than can be done, or tolerating inhuman tedium? How many of us miss the taste of our lunch, the need of a friend for a chat, or our children growing up, as we submit to the pressure of work? Yet a shorter working week is not yet on the agenda. This is not a new debate – these kinds of ideas were proposed by Keynes in the 1930s, Galbraith in the 1950s, feminists since the 1970s. Surely we should now bring them back into our national discussion.
Anna Thomas runs a blog dedicated to promoting the idea of a shorter working week at www.equilibriumcampaign.org