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."