I started my working life as a junior hospital doctor. Often I started work at 8am, worked through the night admitting very sick patients to hospital, and finished the following evening. Once a month, I started at 8 on Saturday morning, tore round trying to take all the blood tests before the rush of people started to arrive in A&E, and finished 56 hours later on Monday evening. Without sleeping. That year was a blur of headaches, anxiety, bad personal decisions and tears over spilt milk. Over 20 years later I still have nightmares about those weekends, and I wonder about some of the patients I wasn’t able to help enough. Crazy hours are bad for the worker and the work.
Fast forward twenty years to 2015, and work is at the heart of our fast-accelerating pre-election debates. Labour has said that 200.000 people who work part time would prefer full-time employment. This is hardly surprising, in these times of job insecurity, low wages and sky-high housing prices. Many people live in damp and rotting houses, go without a meal so that their children can eat, are unsure whether they will be able to pay the rent next month, and are forced to borrow at exhorbitant rates to tide them over. One in four UK households can’t afford to repair or replace broken electrical goods. People become depressed, and households hit by the recession have more rows. According to one, agency workers “ don’t live, they get by.” This is clearly unacceptable, on one of the world’s richest countries, in 2015.
The other side of this coin, however, is overemployment. Almost a fifth of Britons in employment work over 45 hours a week. The Mental Health Foundation says that the stress of our demanding work culture may be the biggest single threat to people’s mental health. People working long hours are less productive and innovative, which is hardly surprising – nobody does their best when they are exhausted. They are less likely to enjoy creative and satisfying aspects of their work. And they barely see their children, let alone their friends.
It may seem strange to juxtapose these two very different, very 21st-century kinds of life. But compared they must be, for the screamingly obvious solution of sharing out the available work rests on it. Those with no work, or not enough, could have more, while those with too much have less. Income inequality, and gender inequality, would go down, and so would the psychological problems caused by both under- and overwork. Productivity would increase, and so would people’s work satisfaction. Rocket science?
Mainstream economists don’t like the logic of work-sharing. They believe that it is mistaken to think of work-supply as limited (hence the objection is known in the jargon as the ‘lump of labour fallacy’). In mainstream economic models, the market will generate all the work people are willing to do, and that level of work will represent the optimum level of productive efficiency and happiness for all. However, a glance at the situation in the real world (not least as summarised above) shows that it doesn’t work like that in practice.
It couldn’t be done all at once of course. With our current low wages and high housing costs, some people can’t afford to give up any hours of work, even when they work lots of them. And we would need to change the national skills mix (for example, we would have to train more doctors, and that takes time). But there is also immediate unfulfilled demand for decently part time opportunities, as well as for longer hours. People who want shorter hours are in a bottleneck of low paid part time work with no progression opportunities. In London, in the £20,000 plus salary bracket there is only one part time role advertised for every 18 full time job; under £20,000 there are seven.
Politicians concerned about equity, economy and people’s happiness would do well to start considering policies to facilitate work sharing – on the road to a shorter working week for all.