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The 30-Hour Work Week Is Here (If You Want It)

A reduced workweek would be healthier for your sanity—and our economy.

In 1930, famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within his lifetime, the future economy would be powered with a quarter of the effort. In a hundred years, he wrote, humanity would actually be confronted with the problem of too much leisure time, and what to do with it. Technological innovation meant that we could accomplish whatever needed doing in a 15-hour workweek, and we’d be endeavoring "to spread the bread thin on the butter," distributing what little work was necessary as equally as possible.

Today, despite massive gains in productivity, and thanks to unrepentant consumerism, Keynes’s prediction couldn’t have been further off. In 1991, sociologist Juliet Schor found that Americans in the early ‘90s were working 163 more hours than they were in 1973. But now, economists (including Schor) are considering a perception of time that actually makes sense for a post-industrial clock. In a recent book published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), called Time on Our Side, they examine why a 30-hour workweek would be a more rational, efficient, and sustainable approach to the modern, developed economy. Most importantly, they say it’s totally doable—and big companies could even play a key part.

Three years ago, NEF’s head of social policy Anna Coote proposed the 21-hour workweek during the Ghent TEDx conference. As a "rallying cry" to suggest radical change, the idea earned a fair share of controversy. Meanwhile, "Time on Our Side is something that we want to get people to talk about in academic circles and policy formation circles," she told me over the phone. As a result, the book includes contributions from 16 economists and thinkers discussing ways in which the current set-up drives carbon emissions, socio-economic and gender-based inequality, and stress.

For example, the NEF included work from researcher Martin Pullinger, who found that longer working hours have a direct link to increased household greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom. Other essays examine how an economy that overemphasizes constant growth and material consumption devalues professions that don’t necessarily benefit from increased output per unit of time—like teaching, for instance, or nursing. One piece included in the collection proposes that the U.K. implement something called "National Gardening Leave," which would mandate a four-day workweek, but distribute a remainder of the time to both leisurely and productive agriculture.

"Wouldn’t people prefer to spend more time doing things other than working?" Coote asks. "And if other economies are just as successful as the American economy and have markedly shorter hours—just look at Germany, for example—isn't there an argument there that you could do things differently?"

As Coote mentions, several European economies operate pretty closely to the 30-hour ideal. The average worker in Germany puts in 35 hours, but the German economy remains the fourth-largest in the world. The country also largely excludes work on Sundays, and the unemployment rate sits at a healthy 5%, compared to the United States’ 7%.

But while a 30-hour workweek might appear distant from a present that prizes long working hours and constant connectedness to work through iPhone push notifications, Coote suggests that it wouldn’t be all that difficult to accomplish. In fact, she thinks that highly paid women (think along Lean In lines) could play a major role in pushing the shift.

"If higher paid workers started to work less hours, it would become a desirable thing. It would be something to aspire to," Coote says.

Coote also believes that big companies could lead the way to a reduced workweek, even to the betterment of productivity—as long as their sunny sustainability claims are genuine. "There are also schools of thought that say that some corporations can see that they can have a market advantage if they make different kinds of products, if they make things sustainably, and that can include the changes in working hours," she says. "I think we should remain a little optimistic about what corporations can do, but not have the wool pulled over our eyes by a lot of waffle about corporate responsibility and just meaningless gesturing, which a lot of them go in for."

[Image: Flickr user Hendrik Terbeck]

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  • Arsh

    With the amount of workers we have compared to the amount of work available we should already be at 20 hours a week for "full time." We aren't because that means companies would have to pay twice as much for half as much and therefore take less money in their own pockets. Until the economy collapses and society has to be rebuilt from the ground up this is only a genius idea that will never actually be implemented.

  • Guest

    Imagine this: You are a customer, wanting a specific service from a highly trained individual. You calked and the receptionist says "Sorry, Sam is gone for the weekend." Well I am glad he is getting a break from work so hard for 30 hours this week, guess I am am screwed. In fact, guess we are both screwed because I am definitely taking my business elsewhere.

  • missioli

    Today when you call, you're put on HOLD while an irritating tune seems to play on forever while messaging that you're a valued customer.
    After reaching an assistant, you're transferred a few more times to find a service worker who can't answer your question.
    Unless, like last week, I called tech support at German company SOMMER.
    The service advisor picked up after the first ring - no message, no music, just excellent service LOL.

  • JustAnotherUser

    More workers, working less hours. Not that hard to grasp. Someone else will still be there with the same canned support response you love to hear!

  • theakinet

    Average US worker works 34.4 hours. But what about ERs, fire and police departments? 15K people died in France when doctors took vacations during a massive heatwave a few years ago.

  • Stephen Leung

    I'm a partner of a small company (less than 10 employees). Does this article apply for me?

    I'm all for shorter work week, but then I couldn't be convinced that my employees can do more in 30 hours than in 45... and I couldn't cut their wages because I cut their hours either (to hire another to keep the production rate)

    Moreover, you give them this much free time, they just use it to find another part-time job... how would that be answered?

  • arkay808

    There's a saying I've been hearing in the marketing agency world and it holds true:

    How long does a project take? Exactly the amount of time you give it to get done.

  • Sharon McGann

    Great article - thanks for the link to the book. I'm working on a project with a state school in Sydney, Australia and had been pondering a four day work week, which is essentially the same concept. I was imagining If four employees dropped back to a four day work week, that would allow a fifth (graduating student) to be employed and thus improve the job prospects for our youth who are facing a lack of job opportunities when they finish high school or university. Dipping into the book shows many of the arguments for such an approach and some of the caveats for those at the low end of the wage spectrum

  • DrPFairlie

    This paints an attractive picture, but I'm not entirely convinced that this would work unless all companies within a specific market or industry (as a limited example) were to adopt this. Otherwise, if you're the company that drops back to a reduced work week, in a hawks and doves scenario, it's possible that your competitors could continue to work their employees 40+ hours per week and reap the benefits of added productivity. Even if the link between additional hours and productivity is tenuous (as suggested above), that doesn't stop your competitors from disbelieving that, or finding innovative ways to be more productive with longer hours (or again, merely believing that). Another problem is the worker/consumer, their attitudes towards income and consumption, and the work/spend cycle. We, as individuals, drive all of this, by wanting longer hours (especially in 'pay for performance' situations) to pay for the widget that our neighbour makes in his employer's factory. Our neighbour does the same to pay for the widget that we make in our employer's factory. Any policy change in working hours at the corporate level would have to be concomitant with commensurate changes in social values about work and consumption.

  • Eleanor Zimmermann

    It's almost as though a centralized group of people, possibly elected by the citizens, could create a civic plan to ensure all companies follow a standard on reduced hours.
    Similar to how we currently have a centralized organization that dictates a fee for employees working past 40 hours.
    A 40 hour work week is just as artificial, historically, but we made it work.
    Left to its own devices, the market will dictate us all work 12 hour days. Late 19th century - early 20th century marketplaces prove this.
    There's solid math here, it's not just a bunch of hippies. Bear in mind, this is also a trickle-up vs. trickle-down issue.
    More people in jobs, more free time to innovate, be good parents, educate oneself on new job skills, so forth. May not immediately show up on the balance sheet, but would shift the demand curve upwards. Everybody wins.

  • tiffanybbrown

    Part of the idea behind a shorter work week is that to be productive at the same level, you have to hire more people. If three people working 40 hours cut back to 30, in theory, there is now budget/justification to hire the fourth. The results would hopefully be healthier, more rested workers and decreased unemployment.

  • delia

    i think a 30 hour work week is good for workers, but the company would still be paying benefits for 4 people instead of 3, and many wouldn't go for it. or else they're reducing people's hours low enough to give reduced or no benefits to all four of them. as long as we are a corporation-centric country (both in our thinking and our laws) i think proponents of the idea are going to have to work harder to sell this to companies.

  • cvxxx

    We are not in a factory mode. We are in information and repair. That does not lens itself to 30 hour weeks as the continuity is not there. In some industries it would work in others not so much and in still other not at all. In a distant future where money was not involved perhaps it would be very beneficial.
    Perhaps in a society were robots did most labor then a base income with wage and price controls (if money was still used) then that could possibly be attained. Gene Roddenberry's dream would be realized.

  • Tamagawa_D9

    What exactly is the benefit for a corporation to do this? How does reducing hours help their bottom line?

  • missioli

    John Maynard Keynes was no dummy. His prediction of future life was based on a normal evolution of the work place. These days the corporations have distorted work by piggybacking responsibilities onto duties that used to comprise a full time job. For example, when I started in sales in the 80's, I was given a notebook to enter call notes. A weekly conference call was the company communication. The company thrived. I successfully worked my territory and was done by 5. When I exited business last year, I had the territory, an iPad, a cellphone, a portable printer in the car and a continuous daily transmission cycle of statistical reports that had me regularly working well into the night. All these tech components rarely positively contributed to my job - sales. I, like many of my counterparts, felt these extra duties were "busywork" that robbed us of our free life.