Why we should be working fewer hours

by Ying Que.

Cutting the workday from eight to four hours would not only solve the unemployment problem, but it would bring about a better economic, social and environmental situation. What are we waiting for?

Today we face, aside from other social and environmental crises at hand, the highest unemployment rate in decades. Ironically, we continue choosing for a situation in which work is distributed completely unfair, where some overwork themselves making over seventy hours a week, while others, unemployed, work none.

Over ninety years ago, Betrand Russell warned us for our belief in the virtuousness of work. He stressed that modern technology has made it possible to produce and secure the necessities of life for everyone, like food, housing and clothing in half the amount of work it took before the industrial revolution. Now, as Russell points out, the basic ethics of work itself are not harmful at all. By being alive we will inevitably consume a certain amount of the produce of human labor and it is only fair to expect some kind of contribution in return.

But now that we have reached the point where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours, he observes that strangely enough a large proportion of the fruits of human labor go to only a small minority of the people. The way we are distributing labor and its fruits is simply unfair. As Russell states : ‘We have made no attempt at economic justice’.

Anno 2013 not much has changed; one might even say things have gotten worse. Today, we live to work, we work to earn and we earn to consume. As the good Puritans our ancestors raised us to be, we relish in the virtue of work, the virtue of being productive, successful and busy. As a result, many of us in the rich countries consume far more than we need. We are encouraged by advertising and politics to transform what we want into what we need. In doing so, we burden the environment with critically high carbon emissions and close our eyes for the extreme social inequalities such as poverty, unemployment and exploitation. We discard those realities as stories that have little to do with ourselves, as long as we can continue to work to earn to buy the things we want.

But now we also face, aside from the other social and environmental crises at hand, the highest unemployment rate in decades. That seems ironic. We possess the means and production to create security and provide basic needs for all the world’s population. But still we choose for a situation in which there are people overworking themselves making over seventy hours a week in contrast to those working none at all.

“Slow Down”, een poster van de IWW vakbond uit het begin van de twintigste eeuw in de Verenigde Staten

“We live to work, we work to earn and we earn to consume”

So let’s propose an alternative. What if, like strikers did before during the years around the Haymarket riots, we try to cut down the hours of our working days? Where they campaigned for an eight-hour workday, let us campaign for a four-hour workday. This is not a new idea. Russell proposed it in 1932, claiming that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. Paul Lafarge joked that we should rescue the middleclass, burdened by their duty of having to consume the whole world, since they’re the only ones who have a decent income. By cutting down the working hours the workers themselves will finally be able to consume their own produce, relieving the middleclass of their heavy burden.

More recently, a year ago, the English think-tank New Economics Foundation (NEF) has proposed the four-hour workday as a solution for many interlinked problems. They claim that the four-hour workday will induce three important goals: a decarbonized economy not dependent on infinite growth, social justice and well being for all, and a sustainable environment. According to NEF, it could even change the current devouring character of the capitalist economy into an economy that actually adapts to the needs of society and the environment, rather than subjugating them to its present goals of growth and profit.

But how exactly will cutting down working hours solve these issues?

First of all, a reduction in working hours will contribute to a much healthier society. According to global campaigners for the four-hour workday, unemployment rates will plummet. There is no longer the division between those who are overworked and those who don’t work at all. Everyone will have the opportunity to work and to earn a decent income.

Second, the four-hour workday could create a path to a no-growth economy. This would do away with the destructive, capitalist and unrealistic idea that a healthy economy must grow infinitely at the cost of fellow human beings and our environment. Reductions in working hours are an important element of an economy that works for the people instead of the other way around. Also, past November, the Political Economy Research Institute has published a study, which concludes that countries with shorter work hours tend to have lower ecological footprints, carbon footprints and carbon dioxide emissions. The Global Campaign for the 4-hour workday claims that a shift will take place from consumerism to sustainability.

Third, a shorter working day would highly improve the psychological well being of the population. It does away with the obsessive notion of having to work, because not working, or being idle, does not mean being unproductive, unsuccessful or a non-contributing citizen of society. Rather, as Kreider writes, ‘the space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from live and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration. It is, paradoxically, necessary to get any work done.’ A more fair distribution of leisure time will enable people to develop those aspects of their lives they would like to nourish, but do not have the time or energy for: more time with your loved ones, more time to spend on your hobbies, for example cultivate that vegetable garden they’ve always dreamed of.

Russell says we have been foolish in our choices: overworking some, starving others and having remained as energetic regarding working hours as before we had machines. But, as he says, that does not mean we have to remain foolish forever. NEF warns us though; simply cutting down work hours will not do the trick. We will have to undergo a profound change in how we value paid and unpaid work and through that our own contributions to society. We will need to change norms and expectations in order to develop a more egalitarian and horizontal culture. But confronted with the current crises of our world, the four-hour workday is a practical step towards a better economic, social and environmental situation and is well worth everyone’s attention and consideration.

259 thoughts on “Why we should be working fewer hours

  1. Pingback: Krantje Boord Juni 2013 vers van de pers | Nieuws | Kritische Studenten Utrecht

  2. And PhD students should be allowed to work jointly on one dissertation and one topic!

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