The Case For A 21-Hour Work Week

It would create jobs and stop the unsustainable cycle of rampant consumerism. Sure, it would also require a wholesale reordering of our economy, but that might happen whether we like it or not.

To save the world—or really to even just make our personal lives better—we will need to work less.

Time, like work, has become commodified, a recent legacy of industrial capitalism, where a controlled, 40-hour week (or more) in factories was necessary. Our behavior is totally out of step with human priorities and the nature of today’s economy. To lay the foundations for a "steady-state" economy—one that can continue running sustainably forever—a recent paper argues that it’s time for advanced developed countries transition to a normal 21-hour work week.

This does not mean a mandatory work week or leisure-time police. People can choose to work as long, or short, as they please. It’s more about resetting social and political norms. That is, the day when 1,092 hours of paid work per year becomes the "standard that is generally expected by government, employers, trade unions, employees, and everyone else."

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a "normal" 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and largely relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).

The NEF argues to achieve more satisfying lives we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to merely consuming).

Besides, it may be the only way a modern global society won’t overwhelm the earth’s resources. Creating EU-level living standards for the entire world by 2050 would require a six-fold increase in the size of the global economy, with potentially devastating consequences. Instead of endlessly growing GDP, maybe we need to recalibrate society to make more people happier and successful with less.

"The proposed shift towards 21 hours must be seen in terms of a broad, incremental transition to social, economic, and environmental sustainability," says the NEF in its report.

The challenges are great. And no doubt, some will seize on this as socialism or worse. Many will object to being told that 21 hours is normal, or 80 hours is too much.

But consider what economist John Maynard Keynes (whose theories underpin much of the response to the global financial crises) said in 1930 about the goals of future societies. Keynes thought that by the start of the 21st century, we would work only 15 to 21 hours a week, and we would instead focus on "how to use freedom from pressing economic cares."

As NEF writes: "Keynes was wrong in his forecast, but not at all wrong, it seems to us, to envisage a very different way of using time."

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  • The TimeMan

    With a shorter work week, each worker would tend to be more productive. You can run faster in a sprint than a marathon. Shorter work periods will make it easier for people to work with a higher intensity and focus knowing they don't have to keep up that pace for a long period of time.

    I teach people in my time management seminars to set time limits on some of the tasks on which they're working so they don't get carried away spending dollar time on penny improvements.

  • Aleeks C

    "Instead of endlessly growing GDP, maybe we need to recalibrate society to make more people happier and successful with less. "

    I think this is possible. I envision a society where people work minimally, and spend their recreation hours pursuing self-expressive, artistic, or entrepreneurial endeavors. 

    With developments in low-cost foods, housing, technology -- and the internet -- I believe that people will no long seek to achieve financial and power-based success, but rather "intelligent" or "artistic" or "community-based" success. These successes cultivate genuine respect which is what humans crave most basically. I think it's a natural trend for society to attempt to "self actualize" itself.

  • Salva

    "If I took a 21 hour a week job, I couldn't afford housing or to eat." The only answer is living in co-operative housing. We are doing something in that direction in London. High quality affordable housing, that can be paid with approximately 12 to 15 hours of work. Our group is called Living Space, if you would like more info you can contact me at salva [at] livingspacehousing [dot] co [dot] uk. 

  • Eric

    That's kind of the point isn't it? You don't need a bigger house, you don't need to drive as often (if you work fewer days), you don't need to eat at restaurants as often. You work less, you have to live with less, but we are then nicer to the planet and probably more happy anyway.

  • Brian

    Do you think the only thing holding us back is being forced to work 40 hours. If I took a 21 hour a week job, I couldn't afford housing or to eat. I would need to find a much more affordable home to live in. I make less than $10 per hour, and 21 hours a week would be hard to live on. I don't feel like I live a consumer lifestyle now, I'm just getting by but of course, I love the idea of working less.

  • Fred Nickols

    I think there's something far more fundamental at work here than the number of hours worked.  Using hours makes time and the hour the measures of value received in return for compensation.  That was a practical measure when work was materials-based and working activities were physical in nature and thus amenable to direct supervision.  Moreover, working activities could be prefigured or designed in advance and the aim of supervision was understandably one of ensuring and enforcing compliance with those prefigured routines.  Starting in the first part of the last century, the base of work began to shift from materials to information and the nature of working activities began shifting from the muscles to the mind and from prefigured routines to configured responses to the circumstances at hand.  In addition, many of these interactions are between and among people, not between people and materials or even between people and information.  The measure of value provided by an employee is no longer time and it is certainly not the hour.  It is instead the results the employee is able to effect; in a word, the "outcomes" the employee achieves, whether alone or in concert with others.  Few managers and execs are paying attention to this; fewer still have figured out how to exploit these shifts.  But some are hard at work on it.  It is a complicated matter but it is far from intractable.  If I put on my employee's hat, I have this to say to management:  "You can't manage my performance; only I can do that."  If I put on my exec's hat, I have this to say to employees in response:  "That's true; but what I can do is manage the management of performance.  So let's talk about how we can get the job done - including how to compensate you for it."

  • gbacoder

    Adding to my previous comment the recession could be the start of people waking up. or it could cause them to go negative. Media must realise this and help. The Murdock press has me worried. But there are better. Thanks for fastco for publishing this!

  • gbacoder

    Excellent! I've been saying this for some time. And it's great to hear it so well put. People would be happier all around. The biggest problem to address is all the advertising that is brainwashing people subconsciously with associations they need new / shiny / expensive things to be happy / respected. Such as trendy clothes, brand new sofas, designer kitchens, and the lastest $800 gadgets (despite them losing their price rapidly). This is simply not needed and studies by the likes of respected psychologist Martin Seligman have shown this.

    Also the TV and media generally then go along with the brainwashing, and they feed people back their own (too heavy) materialists values of "normal", in terms of soaps, shows showing improving the homes of "hard up" folk, how good the lastest iphone is, etc, etc. 
    All that free TV, cheap magazines, and even internet, comes with its hidden vices, that costs us a lot more than we think. When people start to realize this, it will be the start of the change towards a much better people / way of living. 

  • Queen B

    But who will support the middle class welfare with their 6 children & corresponding plasmas, iPhones etc. we won't really make them work instead of just collecting government payments for existing??

  • Devin

    Yeah, right. Does anybody think the people who claim to support "family values" wouldn't fiercely oppose any policies that allow people to actually spend more time with their families? Until Americans wake up to the fact that having more expensive toys than your neighbor is not a real "family value", the common-sense move to shorting working weeks will never happen...unfortunately.

  • Sophia Marsden

    Without "a mandatory work week or leisure-time police" or regulations then it won't happen.

    People need the money just to pay mortgage or rent, that is by far most peoples biggest expense, everything else is marginal to that, employers are not going to just pay people more for less hours and so people needing somewhere to live will be forced to continue working longer hours. 

  • Marcos_Brazil

    Public servants in Brazil have been practicing this short week for a long time...(joke)

    Come on, I can't do what I need to do in 40 hours. What will happen is that companies will keep less and less people working 60 hours a week. It is happening already. 

  • TiredPerson

    The 21-hour workweek won't happen in my lifetime. As it is, I'm considering different ways to get the most out of life besides working. I have been dealing with co-morbid mental disorders since childhood, and the years of hiding them and trying to make the best of a lousy situation have taken their toll – physically, mentally, and emotionally. I can't work 80-hour weeks anymore, nor deal with the mind-games, brown-nosing, or piles of stress that seem mandatory requirements for working in America.

    I have a decent retirement account, and since I'm laid off right now, I'm seriously considering tapping into that account, having one more good decade, and then ending it. The modern American workplace is nothing more than legalized slavery, and I'm sick of waking up dreading each day. It would be nice to enjoy a few more hurrahs, and then check out of this world. For all you pro-scarcity folks, that's a plus – less drain on taxpayer resources. I don't care if ending your life is against someone else's religion. I've made peace with the fact that there is no afterlife – or if there is, I'm going to hell, and to quote AC/DC, "All my friends are gonna be there too."

    (Cue the "bootstraps," "entitlement," and "suck it up, whiner" lectures from my "fellow" Americans. You don't own me, so screw off, and get your noses out of my business, or better yet, a hobby. You all decided to abdicate your rights and your Constitution in favor of making corporations people a long time ago, so why do you CARE what I choose?)

  • Brian

    "The modern American workplace is nothing more than legalized slavery"
    What can we do to change that?

  • Aleeks C

    It sounds like you've worked harder than most of us have -- and you should be proud of it. 
    Travel! There's a lot of good things in this life to experience -- and you don't need that much money for it. Reinvent your lifestyle. Be a simple fisherman in Mediterranean waters. Be an English teacher in Japan. I always encourage my friends to take a leap of faith and to take themselves less seriously -- there's a lot of fun to be had if we just free ourselves from our mental cages.

  • Ken

    The best way to reduce consumerism is to increase your workweek to 70 hours. I found it almost impossible to spend money working 9-9 m-f, and 8-12 hours on the weekend.

  • Rumen Petrov

    Let's see the history:

    The eight-hour day movement or 40-hour week movement, also
    known as the short-time movement, had its origins in the Industrial Revolution
    in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working
    life and imposed long hours and poor working conditions. With working
    conditions unregulated, the health, welfare and morale of working people
    suffered. The use of child labor was common. The working day could range from
    10 to 16 hours for six days a week or 60-100 hours a week.

    We are at the beginning of a new revolution right now. It is
    called Digital revolution or Information Age. It is absolutely sure that the
    work hours will decrease. It is possible that it will decrease by half like it
    did during the Industrial Revolution from 80 to 40. So 21 hours per week is not
    so impossible. The reason for that will be the usage of Artificial Intelligence
    and Quantum Computing. The machines will become 
    more intelligent and aware of their surroundings.  Most of the current  jobs done by humans  will become obsolete.  They will be done by machines, which are much
    cheaper and  can work non-stop 24/7/365 -
    no health insurance no vacation no nothing. 
    I think we will see this happening in the next 20-40 years.

  • Devin

    It's interesting how you point out that the Industrial Revolution led to increased hours, but then you take it as a given that the Digital Revolution will shorten hours. The decrease in hours from 80 to 40 during the Industrial Revolution was not an inevitable result of the I.R., but rather a political response to it. Politics is never inevitable. If anything, the D.R. seems to be following the I.R. in increasing hours worked. Most people I know in tech work very long hours. Whether there will be another political movement to once again shorten the work week is anybody's guess. But clearly there are very powerful forces in place to resist such a movement.