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The leisure economy: can we save the planet by working less?

Ewan Kingston

1st September, 2009

The idea of a 'leisure economy' has been predicted for decades, but never realised. Despite this, research shows that our working habits continue to put a strain on the planet's resources. Could tackling climate change be as simple as working less?

There's something wonky with the way we work. Those of us with jobs are stressed when we work, and fatigued when we're not.

Many of us don’t feel we have time to interact with our communities. 46 percent of Brits have described themselves as being 'exhausted' at the end of a days work. A similar survey by the Families and Work Institute found one third of Americans were 'chronically overworked’. Less than a quarter of Brits are 'satisfied' with their work hours. 

But while some of us are shackled to a long-hours culture, unemployment has been rising.

Firms across the industrialised world, from car manufacturers to consultants to city councils have been offering employees the choice to work less hours for less pay, instead of lay-offs. Many workers have accepted the new conditions willingly, some even relishing them. One British delivery firm found when it offered its workers a three-day week, some asked to work only two.

In June, the Ecologist interviewed employees of the Toyota assembly plant in Derby. A recent 10 per cent hours and wage cut was being taken mildly.


'At least we've still got jobs' was a typical response.

One young employee, new to the workforce, thought the new hours were ideal and the lower pay easily sufficient - he hadn't yet gathered the debts that most of us run up given a few years in paid employment.

The 40-hour tyranny

So how did we arrive at a 40 hour week in the first place? Looking back, there’s good reason to believe it came about by a curious set of historical circumstances.

From the 1820s to the 1930s, unions were consistent in their demands for both shorter working weeks and higher wages. The average work week in the US, for example shrank from 60 hours a week in 1900 to under 50 just two decades later.

Industrialists like Henry Ford agreed with the vision of progressively shorter hours and in 1933 a 30 hour week was, according to some historians, 'within a month' of becoming a reality in the USA.

Surprisingly, the incoming President Roosevelt quashed the idea, a decision he is said to have regretted just two years later.

The work-less guinea pigs

The most long-lived experiment with shorter work hours in the industrial world was when cereal company Kellogg switched to a 30 hour week during the Great Depression. The new hours lasted far longer than the Depression did, with some sections of the company voting again and again to retain the system well into the eighties.

The idea of work-time reduction continued to be supported by such thinkers as Bertrand Russell and, notably, the now newly-fashionable John Maynard Keynes. Keynes called fiscal stimulus ‘first aid’ and WTR the 'ultimate solution' to unemployment.

However, the 40 hour week was supported by the International Labour Organization in 1935, and incorporated into the New Deal in 1938. After the war, the orientation of the economy towards growth and consumption meant WTR never regained momentum, and the 40 hour week has solidified as a norm ever since. 

So then doesn't the 40 hour week mark an equilibrium point that workers have chosen, between the value of their free time and the value they place on their income?

Not necessarily. For one, it's not a freely negotiated situation. Employers tend to seek a one-size-fits-all solution, making it very hard for those who want to work less to do so. One book on 'downshifting' even suggests that people reducing their work-time maintain the illusion they still work full-time hours in order to avoid being discriminated against by fellow employees.

For some of course, forty-hour weeks would be a luxury: the US is infamous for lacking legislation on paid holidays and maximum weekly hours. The fact that British workers (unlike those in the rest of the EU) are still able to opt-out of the protection of a maximum forty-eight hour week will continue to be abused by unscrupulous employers to create long-hours working cultures. It's an asymmetrical situation - the right to request flexible or reduced hours in the UK with the support of the government only applies to those wishing to care for a specific person.


source: International Labour Organization, 2007



The High Church


Economic orthodoxy has shunned the idea that work-time reduction (WTR), especially outside of times of recession, will help reduce unemployment. Some economists refer to the idea that there is a set amount of employment to be distributed among those willing to work as the 'lump of labour fallacy'. They believe-work-time reduction will lead to less demand for products, a slower economy, and thus have no effect positive effect on unemployment rates.

However, this line is being challenged by economists like Tom Walker and Leeds University's David Spencer, and there are loud voices calling for work-time reduction as general policy in industrialised countries.

Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt is insistent: 'The [economic] house of cards that is necessary to support full-time employment is such a problematic undertaking that sooner or later it is going to come crashing down. We're close to it now'.

Ironically, signs indicate that businesses too would benefit from decreased work hours – the harmful impact of worker fatigue in manufacturing has been long established (see for example Philip Sargant Florence, The Economics of Fatigue and Unrest).

More recently, the US Department of Labour has found that employees are generally more productive in the first 5 hours of their workday. The fact that employees took less sick days and were more productive while at work was one reason why Kellogg could afford to increase its hourly wage when it was running 30 hour weeks.

Work-time reduction is featured in the UK government's Sustainable Development Commission's Prosperity Without Growth report, which showcased economist Peter Victor's model of a stable, non-growing economy. Victor created this model, based on statistical data drawn from the Canadian economy, then experimented with adjusting variables like labour participation and investment rates to try to find a stable, desirable no-growth scenario.

Several no-growth scenarios were accompanied by high poverty and unemployment levels, but one stood out – it featured low unemployment and poverty levels, and sinking levels of CO2 emissions.

One key feature of this 'Resilient' scenario was that investment was concentrated on public rather than private goods, but what was the crucial variable that saved the day? Work-time reduction.

Macro-economic models of non-growing economies aren't thick on the ground, in fact this is the first.  Are there more to come? Tim Jackson, chair of the SDC hopes so:

'One thing we can say for sure,' he told the Ecologist, 'is that we need some  macroeconomic thinking around these possiblities. And we need it quick!'
    
A sense of self

A further barrier towards reducing the hours we work is in the way in which our self-image can be defined by what we can consume.

'Meaning, purpose and identity are now increasingly expressed through consumption. It can make downshifting very difficult because you have to build a new identity and a new pattern of meaning in your life' says Guardian columnist, Madeleine Bunting, who writes on work issues.

This linking of self-image and the products we consume has been heavily reinforced by the advertising industry, a this is why in the vision of sustainable economies, such as that of the SDC or economist Herman Daly, work-time reduction may need to be augmented by more restrictions on, or disincentives to, advertising. While this may sound like wishful thinking to some, governments already regulate advertising and some, such as Scandanavia's, have managed much greater restrictions.

Advertising restrictions don't just belong to highly industrialised economies, either. Brazil's Sao Paolo, under a conservative mayor, went billboard-free in 2007, a move which has been hailed as a success by residents.

The knock-on environmental benefits of work time-reduction could be considerable. As individuals, if we make the choice to trade some of our income for more time, we might find our consumption drops automatically. A WWF report found the wealthier areas of the UK tend to have higher ecological footprints. The link with work time has also been made explicit. The Center for Economic and Policy Research found in 2006 that if Europe was to emulate the long working hours of the USA, carbon dioxide emissions from the region would rise by 30 per cent.

Equally importantly, leisure time allows people the time and energy to engage in Earth-friendly activities. It takes time and energy to grow your own food, to gain confidence to cycle to work, to become an engaged and informed citizen. We don't like to change our habits, and when we are time pressured and exhausted, we are even less likely to do so.

Long hours reduce our personal wellbeing... at least in Europe
source: National Accounts of Wellbeing, 2009

Change we need (and want)?


While the shorter-work movement may have gone underground for several decades, the growth in 'ecological economics' has seen it surface again, this time marrying both labour and environmental concerns The New Economics Foundation has promoted the idea, as has Ecologist columnist, Tom Hodgkinson. The idea has also surfaced in the Conservative party's Blueprint for a Green Economy.

The movement is stronger, however, in North America, where the Take Back Your Time (TBYT) foundation and the Canadian Work Less Party  work ceaselessly(!) to put work reduction on the agenda.

John de Graaf, director of TBYT and co-author of Affluenza is an influential voice:

‘We need [WTR] for health, for relationships, connections, communities; we need it to be good environmental stewards, and we need it to reduce unsustainable levels of consumption,'  he says.

The movement has powerful allies. President Obama has met personally with TBYT, and mentioned work-time reduction in his inauguration speech. 'Obama gets these things' says De Graaf.

Even among the economic orthodoxy, ideas are shifting. Nobel prize winner for economics Robert Solow told Harpers Magazine last year:
'It is possible that the US and Europe will find.... that they would rather use increasing productivity in the form of leisure There is nothing intrinsic in the system that says it cannot exist happily in a stationary state.'

So might the UK see work-time reduction as forward-thinking policy? The grassroots support is still minimal.

'Trade unions worry about the impact of shorter work hours on the wages of their members but they tend to overlook ways by which this issue may be overcome.... I perhaps need to promote the idea more myself,' says David Spencer, economist at Leeds University.

If he looked to Continental Europe, Spencer would find he wasn’t without company.
 Volkswagen's German plants have run efficiently with a 29-hour week for more than a decade.

On a national level, the government of the Netherlands has initiated a Working Hours Adjustment act, which fully protects the rights of employees to seek shorter hours. France's 35-hour week is no longer prescribed by law, but businesses and unions are nonetheless finding 35 hours per week to be a happy medium.

The work-time revolution

It may not seem like it when looking over the household budget, but taking a longer term view, those of us with full-time jobs can generally afford to work less.

While real incomes in industrialised countries have roughly doubled in the last four decades, we have become no happier. Still, our labour productivity, the amount of work that we can do in a set time, has continually increased. Hence the sensible call that we can trade our gains in productivity for more leisure time, instead of more stuff.

Ewan Kingston is a freelance journalist

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Users Comments

Re: The leisure economy: can we save the planet by working less?
Posted By EC017608 1 September 3, 2009 07:03:39 PM

Doesn't it depend on what we're all working on?

Re: The leisure economy: can we save the planet by working less?
Posted By EC019144 1 September 10, 2009 10:15:17 PM

Yes!! Before I retired (from a high-stress professional job) I worked one less day a week for a few years. The reduction in income was hugely compensated by the increased flexibility and restoration of sanity - re-creation in its truest sense. I do acknowledge that I was and am in an immensely privileged position to be able to make these choices, but I also see others who work excess hours to earn money to buy stuff to compensate the people they love and haven't been with, because they have been 'too busy working'.......
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