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NEF - Why are we so obsessed with ‘hard work’?

Blog posted by: Sarah Lyall (November 21, 2013)

The UK has the longest average annual working hours of all the major economies in Europe, but it is far from the strongest.

Countries such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have demonstrated that it is possible to have significantly shorter average hours, and have arguably fared better during economic recession. People living in countries with shorter average working hours also tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of stress, with the ‘ideal’ working week lying somewhere between 25 and 30 hours according to the results of a recent Europe-wide survey.

Many have commented on the persistent use of the phrase ‘hard-working’ and especially ‘hard-working families’ in British politics. This week I enjoyed reading Alex Andreou’s discussion of the ‘mythic’ hardworker. Poking fun, Andreou, who runs Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company, describes how it feels to admit, “to myself and to the world: I am not naturally hard-working. (Cue hissing from the crowd, ladies fainting, shouts of "monster".)”

Look more closely at the image of heroic hard-workers: holding down more than one low-income job and working anti-social hours so they can support their families who they barely have the time to see in the context of rising living costs and stagnating wages; and it begins to look a lot like exploitation.

Look further up the income scale and hard-work takes on a different meaning. Even in recession, for those on higher incomes working hard has a lot to do with consumption and status. Working – as Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, has said – “to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”. Or, put another way, “working long hours to earn money to buy stuff that’s made and used in ways that inflict profound and irreversible damage on the ecosystem on which all life depends.”

This all begs the question, where are we running and why are we running there so fast?

Last week at Waterstone’s Economists’ Bookshop, nef launched a new collection of essays by leading experts in social, economic and environmental sciences, exploring that question. The book, Time on Our Side, points to a central dilemma: we have an economy that is damned if it grows (because of the likely negative impact on climate change) and damned if it doesn’t (because of the likely impact on jobs and income).

The book argues that the simplest way of getting out of the trap is to move to a shorter working week. Since countries in the rich world seem increasingly unable to grow their economies while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels, they should start facing up to a future with little or no economic growth.

One of the worst effects of a flat-lining economy is usually high unemployment – but this can be offset, to an extent, if people work fewer hours. This would mean relinquishing our ‘fetish for labour productivity’ and focusing on the quality of work itself: ‘if there’s less work to be had in the economy, for whatever reason, then perhaps we should all just work less and enjoy it.’ The book suggests that instead of endeavouring to increase our salaries year on year, we could be looking to increase the amount of time we have each week to call our own.

There are obvious equity issues to be considered. Who should reduce their working hours first? What about people who are time poor because of their caring responsibilities rather than their work? A shorter working has the potential to increase gender and income equality by redistributing paid and unpaid time, but ‘flexible working’ policies can also give the advantage to employers and lead to zero hours contracts over which workers have little or no control.

A shorter working week would also have to be established alongside measures to tackle low wages, to ensure that everyone could benefit from the new wealth of time. The book addresses such issues head on, cautioning that social justice, environmental sustainability and a flourishing economy are possible consequences of a shorter working week, but not inevitable. It all depends on how it’s done, and the ways in which this growing body of knowledge is used to inspire practical action for a more balanced, sustainable and equitable future.

I will be discussing working time and the questions it raises for a new economy based on social justice and environmental sustainability at the Compass Conference Change: HOW? on the 30 November 2013 – I hope to see you there!

Time on Our Side: Why we all need a shorter working week, edited by Anna Coote and Jane Franklin and published by nef, is out now. You can buy the book here.

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