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.”

We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour – Keynes and the 15 hour week

The great economist John Maynard Keynes explained in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren how 100 years hence, he predicted a 15 hour working week (and even this more to satisfy our need to feel useful than from necessity). Keynes did not anticipate that productivity increases would be taken mostly in the form of money rather than time, nor did he forsee the  growth of consumption possibilities and consumer expectations. And he did not seem to recognise the need for increased living standards in underdeveloped countries. But it is still worth reading his (extracted) words:

“From the sixteenth century, with a cumulative crescendo after the eighteenth, the great age of science and technical inventions began, which since the beginning of the nineteenth century has been in full flood.

What is the result? In spite of an enormous growth in the population of the world, which it has been necessary to equip with houses and machines, the average standard of life in Europe and the United States has been raised.

We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years-in our own lifetimes I mean-we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.

For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment.

But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day.

I draw the conclusion that… the  economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years.

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

We shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible… three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week …

We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things.”

Why a shorter working week?

Here are 11 reasons why I think we could all benefit from a shorter working week. What do you think?

  1. We would have more time for living

Work can be fulfilling and enjoyable, for the fortunate. But we don’t live just for work. We live to mess around and play football and party and love and to make things and cook things and understand things and improve the world around us and learn how to do new things. Is the balance right, or does too much of our precious energy end up in the office?

2.       We would have more time to look after each other

Children need care. Parents need care. We all need care, support and help from time to time. More space in our lives would enable us to give more of what most of us want to give. The current way doesn’t allow enough space for care, leading to all sorts of problems.

3.       We would have more time to create our communities

Community bonds are vital in sustaining society and making individuals happy. This is not controversial, and most people mourn the demise of community, but if all our energy goes into work, little is left to put into the community spider’s web of connections and favours and reciprocation and small organisations.

4.       All could have some work, rather than some having too much and others none

Our current norm is for most people to work for most of their time, and for a minority not to work at all. Neither of these options would seem either to generate quality of life, or to distribute income sensibly. Better to share out the available work.

5.       We could work more productively

People who work shorter hours get more done per hour, as do people who are happier. Moreover, many skilled and talented people stop contributing economic work because other commitments leave them unable to work full time, and part time work is not available that uses their skills.

6.       We could work more innovatively

Do people come up with ideas, inventions or new ways of doing things after they are exhausted from long hours of drudgery? No, they tend to do it when they have space, when their minds are fresh and while they are doing something else. Shorter working hours create the conditions for innovation.

7.       We could stop wasting out lives doing pointless stuff

The riposte to point 4 is that the economy can generate full time work for all who want it, that there is no fixed ‘lump of labour’. This is the wrong approach. How much of the work we do contributes something useful, and how much is a ‘nonsense bullshit job’, as David Graeber eloquently puts it? “What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?”

8.       The environment can’t take all the pointless stuff…

Seen in historical terms, a relatively small proportion of jobs in developed countries now involve the physical fabric of our lives. But still, we stretch the planet to breaking point by consuming too much. Before very long this will put far more pressure on all of us. The answer to our economic conundrum cannot be to continue to generate ever more material wants and then create jobs to fulfil them – it just won’t work for much longer.

9.       …and even more so because the poorest countries do need more stuff

The majority of the world’s people live on next to nothing, with a family in one or two rooms, expecting only some of their children to survive (and not necessarily to survive childbirth themselves), with intermittent, precarious but extremely hard work, and maybe just enough food. These people do need more stuff, which means the fortunate consuming less, if we are to stay within global environmental limits.

10.   Women and men could have it all

Women and men in the UK are brought up to expect equal opportunities. Then they have children and suddenly the women look after the kids and miss out on the wider world, and then men go out to work and miss out on the kids (with minor modification, perhaps, but this is still the dominant pattern). Why on earth do we still do it this way, when many people would be much happier dividing the work-in-the-world and the caring work more equally?

11.   Older people could have it all

When jobs were hard and physical, perhaps it made sense to retire. But now, we work long hours until a certain moment moment arrives, and stop dead. This means not enough time for the rest of life before that point, and too much after, leading in many to a loss of sense of purpose and painful adjustment, not to mention inadequate income. How much better to work fewer hours, but for longer?

Kickstarting debate about working hours

We need to talk about work. Too much work, or not enough of it.

Life is short. But how many of us have too much work, and spend most of our lives rushed off our feet trying to do more than can be done, tolerating inhuman tedium, trying to remember what needs to be said to who, or worrying about meeting impossible deadlines. How many of us miss the taste of our lunch, a sunny afternoon, the need of a friend for a chat, or our children growing up, as we submit to the pressure of work?

Then, how many others  of us have not enough work, and also miss the good things in life, because we are panicking about paying the bills, because we feel society has left us on the scrapheap, or simply because we can’t afford enough?

And yet, while we miss so much of what makes life worth living, how much of the work we do is productive? How often do we leave work feeling we did something useful, and with the time to do it well? And how many of our organisations are really needed? We debate how to generate growth, but not what that growth is made of. We leave it to the market to decide – but is the untrammelled market supporting enough of us to fulfil enough of our potential?

What if we had a shorter working week – let’s say, to start with, a three day weekend. We would be sharing out more work between us. We would have more time to look after dependents, enjoy our friends, kids and families, contribute to our communities and to watch movies or surf the web or read or cook or play football or sit in the elusive sun when it does turn up. Life would be better.

It would be better for us as a society as well. Society would be less unequal (because fewer people would be unemployed), reducing the problems of crime, mistrust and envy that our current extreme inequality generates. We would be more productive in the time we spent at work, we would lose some pointless activity, and some social issues would be eased, as people spent more time supporting their own dependents, and in their communities. The pensions crisis might be eased, as we might work fewer hours but for longer, rather than cramming all the work into earlier life to save for a time when we stop completely. And we might have more chance of tackling the issues of sustainability that are rapidly hurtling down the track.

To get to this happy place, we would need to tackle many big issues. For example, how do we make sure that everyone could have an affordable home? How do we make sure that everyone has enough to live on, even if they are in low paid work? Do we have the right balance between public and private?

It is often acknowledged that we are in economic and political crisis, yet a shorter working week is not even on the agenda as a solution. And this is not a new debate – these kinds of ideas were proposed by Keynes in the 1930s, Galbraith in the 1950s, feminists since the 1970s. But they haven’t taken serious hold. Surely we should at least start talking about them.