A shorter working week: a change in the prevailing wisdom

What do we want? A shorter working week! When do we want it? Erm… when we are ready for it!

My more rigorous friends tell me I am a dreamer. It’s all very well telling your nice stories about going home early on Friday and Mayday and the moon, they say, but what do you actually want? What policy changes will get us to this Utopia of which you speak? Have you thought about that?

Well, I have! And the possibilities are many. One option is a statutory limit on working hours – as was done in the middle of the last century to create a no-arguments weekend, and much more recently in France when weekly hours were for a time capped by law at 35. More likely in this country is a more gradual voluntary change, backed by supportive policy. So we would campaign for a stronger legal obligation on employers to take requests for reduced working hours or flexible working seriously. This campaign would need, of course, to work closely alongside a push to make a living wage a reality.

However, there is a reason why I don’t talk about this much. I don’t think it’s the right time yet. Timing is everything in campaigning.

Take this election campaign. All the main parties have proposed an extension to free childcare for young children, to their credit. But that is as far as it goes. Across the spectrum, the idea of the shorter working week, despite its obvious appeal, has not been mentioned.

It’s not it is never mentioned at all. On the contrary, there are press articles specifically calling for a four day week, from Spectator to New Statesman, and the mainstream press regularly features calls from the great and the good for shorter working hours, news pieces on areas such as the link between long hours and poor health, and in-depth features on companies experimenting with innovative working hours arrangements.

So there are lots and lots of nuggets, just waiting to be joined up by a campaign – but the idea is not yet mainstream. And campaigning for specific policy change before it is in that mainstream would be too easily dismissed. Rather, the first job of a campaign for shorter working hours is to get the idea from the margins to the mainstream, discussed around pub tables and water coolers, up and down the land and also in Westminster and on Newsnight. And to do that, there needs to be a networked community of people who are already working a shorter week, or aiming to, who know the benefits and want to spread them. (If you are one of those people, sign up to this blog for exciting news over the coming months.)

Once that is done, the time will be right to campaign for the policy change to make it happen. By the 2020 election, the manifestos of all the parties will feature a shorter working week, and we will be ready to chant as we march.

What do we want? A shorter working week! When do we want it? Now!


Mayday story

A Mayday story written by Gary Younge for the Guardian, h/t Lianna Etkind 

About 25 years ago [now a bit longer!], US oral historian  Studs Terkel was waiting for a number 146 bus alongside two well-groomed business types. “This was before the term yuppie was used,” he explains. “But that was what they were. He was in Brooks Brothers and Gucci shoes and carrying the Wall Street Journal under his arm. She was a looker. I mean stunning – Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus and carrying Vanity Fair.”

Terkel, who is 95, has long been a Chicago icon, every bit as accessible and integral to the cultural life of the Windy City as Susan Sontag was to New York. He had shared the bus stop with this couple for several mornings but they had always failed to acknowledge him. “It hurts my ego,” he quips. “But this morning the bus was late and I thought, this is my chance.” The rest of the story is his.

“I say, ‘Labour Day is coming up.’ Well, it was the wrong thing to say. He looks toward me with a look of such contempt it’s like Noel Coward has just spotted a bug on his collar. He says, ‘We despise unions.’ I thought, oooooh. The bus is still late. I’ve got a winner here. Suddenly I’m the ancient mariner and I fix him with my glittering eye. ‘How many hours a day do you work?’ I ask. He says, ‘Eight.’ ‘How comes you don’t work 18 hours a day like your great-great-grandfather did? You know why? Because four guys got hanged in Chicago in 1886 fighting for the eight-hour day … For you.’

Solar year, lunar month, why the week?


Most of the ways we measure time are based on nature. The month is broadly based on lunar cycles, with a few days added (by Julius Caesar) to make 12 months fit snugly in a solar year – based, of course, on the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun. Before Caesar revamped it all, months were totally based on lunar cycles, so December crept gradually from winter to summer, which was presumably inconvenient.

But the seven day week? What’s that all about? In ancient times they divided lunar months up all sorts of ways instead. But the Babylonians started dividing the month into seven day chunks, as of course did the Jews.

Witold Rybezynski, in his fascinating book Waiting for the Weekend, points out that the ancient world was full of sevens – seven pillars of wisdom, seven names of God, seven wonders of the world – you name it. Seven was a magical number. There were also thought to be seven planets, and the days of the week were named after the known planets by the Romans: Saturn-day, Sunday, Moon-day, Mars-day (think of the French Mardi), Mercury-day (French Mercredi), Jupiter-day (Jeudi) and Venus-day (Vendredi). In English, we traded some of this for names of Anglo Saxon figures: for example Thor got Thursday. The only European language that retains a complete set of Roman planetary names is Welsh.

In China, though, the seven-day week arrived very much later – as a result of the 1911 revolution, and as part of a push to ‘modernise’.

According to the same book, the ancient concept of the weekend started with the Jewish Sabbath. Then other religions (Christianity, Islam) deliberately chose other days as their holy day to distinguish themselves. Hindus on the Indian sub continent also adopted a rest-day in each seven day time-chunk, probably around the 4th century. There has never been a human society that did not recognise the need for a regular day off, although some have tried to minimise them. One of these was revolutionary France.

After the revolution, the French revised the calendar completely, to break with the past and to decimalise (‘rationalise’) time. Year 1 was to be the proclamation of the Republic, 1792. They kept the year, and divided it into twelve thirty day months, with five days left over at the end for a festival. The seven day week was abandoned – instead months were divided into three ten-day periods, decades, with the tenth day being a holiday. It didn’t work though. Christians (the majority) continued to celebrate the Lords Day, and non-Christians had far less frequent days off. According to Rybezynski, “even if the Jacobins had survived, it is unlikely that the “decade” would have persisted”. It lacked the cultural roots and mystery of the planetary week. “The roots of the week lie deep, too deep to understand.”

Who says school has to last all day?

There is nothing sacred about going to your workplace soon after you wake up in the morning and staying there until late afternoon, five days a week. Around the world, things are done differently.

A close friend lived in Argentina, and has just returned from a visit there. I will see her this weekend, which reminded me of the ordinary yet surprising way things are done differently there. When I visited her family in Argentina, I never saw the kids in the morning – they had gone out long before I surfaced – school starts at 8am in Argentina.

But they were back home by lunchtime! In Argentina, it is normal that children do either morning school or afternoon school. That is how it works. In the afternoon, my friend’s kids would do homework, go out to music or language classes, hang out with friends, or just hang out. It varied.

I don’t know the reasons for this Argentine system – probably something to do with sharing out of public resources, and something to do with national tradition, and nothing at all to do with notions of a shorter working week (and it caused obvious childcare headaches for adult friends of the friends who did have full time jobs). But it seems to me a very interesting way to teach from an early age that work is not the whole of life and that you have to learn how to use your flexible time, as well as an interesting and little-known example of a different way of doing things.

My own kids, having heard about Argentine half-day school, now think their own full school days are deeply unfair. They also ask me pretty well every Friday  whether I have succeeded yet in my quest to campaign for a three day weekend for all. Better get on with it.

That doctor may have worked 100 hours already this week…

As I said a week or two ago, I started my working life 25 years ago as a junior doctor, looking after sick people through the weekend without any sleep. Apart from the massive toll on my personal life, my patients certainly didn’t get the best out of their exhausted doctor. My career soon moved in other directions, and I thought junior doctors’ hours had been sorted. But it seems not. The story of junior doctors’ hours is an incredible extreme of how society fails to balance different human needs.

Granted, things are better than during the 1980s when an 80 hour week was seen as an unattainable aspiration. In the late 1980s Dr Chris Johnstone took to his bed in the street in protest at his work hours, eventually winning a high court ruling that working an employee so much overtime that their health was foreseeably damaged, was unlawful. By 1994 the maximum week was ‘only’ 72 hours (although this was weakly implemented with many doctors working longer).

Further progress came with the UK implementation of the European Working Time Directive, which meant that hours had to be down to an average of 48 per week by 2009. Still way too many – but allowing something approaching a normal life, even though the work was even more intense.

However, the devil is in the detail, and in this case in the averaging. Some doctors are still working weeks of over 100 hours, with fewer hours in other weeks. This summer, as if we were still in the early 1990s, it was debated at the BMA whether there should be a 72 hour maximum in any one week.  But as Dr Andrew Collier, co-chair of the BMA Junior Doctors’ Committee said, you can’t average your sleep across 26 weeks.

Even worse, in July 2014 the government announced that it would encourage junior doctors to opt out of the Working Time Directive, using the tired old argument that doctors need to work long hours to get enough experience (when did anybody, including a human being who happens to be a doctor,  learn anything useful while sleeping on their feet?) Medicine is a notoriously patronage-ridden profession, and ‘encouragement’ to opt out is unlikely to be limited to a friendly take-it-or-leave-it request.

Remembering my own horrendous experience of bad personal decisions and tears over tiny problems while I was working as a junior doctor – definitely the worst year of my life – I find it incredible that the situation has moved on so ambiguously in a quarter of a century. It seems to me that someone should fire up a campaign over this.

Why don’t we share out the work?

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.