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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