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.

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Nice if you can afford it…?

Fewer hours at work? Choking on your breakfast? Spluttering into your coffee? Nice if you can afford it! For many the shorter working week is just a pipe dream. Many people need every available hour of work, just to get by.

Yes. To make the shorter working week possible for everyone, some other pretty major policies would have to change. The minimum wage would have to become a living wage, and a living wage while working fewer hours. And we would finally, finally have to tackle the fact that a decent home is unaffordable for many people. This is no small endeavour.

However, moving towards a shorter working week could actually help us move towards a more equal society, with more people in jobs that provide a decent living. We can’t wait until fair wages and affordable housing have become a reality: changing the way that we share out work is part of the solution.

Firstly, we could be sharing the available work. At the moment, while many have so much work it leaves little time or energy for the rest of their lives, a significant number – especially of young people – have no work at all. Surely it would make more sense to share around the work available at any one time, than leave a minority of people without any possibility to earn their own income. Economist Juliet Schor (cited in NEF’s 2012 briefing About Time – Developing the case for a shorter working week) has said, “The UK has entered a period of high and chronic unemployment and underemployment…work time reduction becomes the key to restoring balance in the labour market.” Moreover, people on higher incomes are tending to work longer and longer hours, while others have less work than they need or none at all. Schor continues, “This is a kind of structural unemployment that occurs when working hours are too high. Redistribution of hours is therefore central to a programme leading to more egalitarian distribution outcomes.”

Secondly, people who want shorter hours for reasons such as their health or their caring responsibilities are in a bottleneck of low paid part time work with no progression opportunities. In London, for example, the London Assembly has called on the Mayor to create 20.000 specifically part time jobs across the income spectrum. There isn’t a shortage of part time jobs – there is a shortage of decently paid part time jobs. According to Building a Sustainable Quality Recruitment Market, a 2012 report from Women Like Us/Timewise Foundation, in London there is only one part time vacancy advertised that earns the full time equivalent of £20,000 or more for every 18 similarly paid full time vacancies. In contrast, there are seven lower paid part time vacancies for each of those paid above £20,000. Part time opportunities for all those who want them, across the income scale, would actually increase rather than decreasing equity.

Thirdly, there is nothing sacred about a five day working week, and earlier reductions in working hours were down to the efforts of the unions and their working members. In the 19th century, it was thought that society could only possibly work with a six day working week, and much longer working days. Edward and Robert Skidelsky put this as follows. “The reduction of the working week was one of the great achievements of 20th-century social democracy. A labourer in mid-Victorian Britain could expect to work 60 hours a week – 10 hours a day, six days a week – from adolescence till death. Sundays alone were left free for chapel or gin. The early trade union movement campaigned vigorously against this regime with the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”. Its efforts bore fruit. By 1930, weekly hours in Britain had sunk to 47; by 1980, they were down to 40.”

Fourthly, sometimes the idea of more time to pursue one’s own passions is written off as ‘middle class’. The ability to afford to do this may indeed be the privilege of the better-off in our highly unequal society, but the idea that only a privileged portion of society has passions they want to pursue is laughable. It’s a recent thing for it to be regarded as middle class. Just look at the historical roots of football, or growing food on allotments, or brass bands or male voice choirs. And if you have a low income the need to rely on and give to the community is pressing.

Finally, an idea needs to be on the public agenda before it can become reality. It needs to be discussed and debated. Distant as their realisation may seem, the ideas of a living wage and affordable homes for all are at least on the public agenda. In this sense, the idea of a shorter working week is behind these other areas of policy, and needs to catch up.