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.

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.”

Less clutter more time

Never say I don’t practise what I preach. Life took over and blogging took a back seat at the end of 2014. However this didn’t progress the campaign for a shorter working week anywhere except my own life, so I am back on the blog.

It’s one of those ultimate paradoxes – there’s no escaping the fact that kickstarting a debate and setting up a campaign require many hours of hard work. It’s a bit like the years when I administered subscriptions for Ethical Consumer magazine, at the same time as the magazine was urging its subscribers both to subscribe by direct debit and to change bank account for ethical reasons. Many hours of paradoxical extra work required.

But then, a shorter working week is about being more active, not less – it’s just the type of activity that is different. Anyway, I digress.

Today an article by Tim Harford, the FT’s ‘undercover economist’, caught my eye – Why more and more means less. It’s very new-year appropriate – it is all about the benefits of decluttering. He cites lots of reasons why this is a good idea:

  • Storage is expensive, as is a bigger house
  • You might be keeping stuff solely because you can’t think of a reason to throw it out (the ‘status quo bias’); instead, he advises, you should only keep things if you know a good reason to do so. As William Morris said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
  • Stuff has diminishing returns. “The first pair of trousers is essential; the second is enormously useful. It is not at all clear why anyone would want a 10th or 11th pair.”
  • Too much stuff carries not only the costs of storage but also the opportunity cost of not appreciating what you have because it’s stuck at the bottom of a crate.

I love all these. I would add a few more.

  • Less stuff means fewer costs which means the potential for shorter working hours.
  • If you spend less time looking for things stuck at the bottom of a crate you can spend more time on the activities you really want to do.
  • Less stuff means fewer carbon emissions.

Win win win win win win win.

Why do we work 40 hours and have a two day weekend?

There’s nothing essential about our entrenched 35-40 hour standard working week. It hasn’t always been this way.

There isn’t even anything essential about the week comprising seven days. That’s hard to get your head round, but think about it… why should the week be seven days long? No reason. It doesn’t relate to anything in nature, or anything else. It’s arbitrary. The seven day week seems to have been invented in ancient Babylon.

Robert Owen, the utopian socialist, was an early advocate of limits to working hours. He petitioned for working hours restrictions throughout Europe in 1818. This was rejected as ‘lunatic’.

But despite the perceived lunacy of the idea, restrictions to working hours did start to emerge in the UK. Children we the first to benefit – in the Factory Acts of 1831 and 1833 children under 18 were no longer permitted to work longer than 12 hours a day. Hardly a massive achievement by today’s standards – but further change followed rapidly. Barely more than a decade later, in 1844, the adult working day was limited to 12 hours, and children’s to 6.5 hours.

In the second half of the 19th century, pressure for the eight hour day grew. The ‘Eight Hour League’, under the famous slogan “eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours what you will” successfully pressured the Trades Union Congress to adopt eight hour days as a goal, around the turn of the century. Sidney Webb, one of the founders of modern sociology, was also an advocate. However, while the eight hour day has indeed become the standard in the UK, there is no legislation requiring it (although there is legislation limiting the total working week to 48 hours). The eight hour day became the norm piece by piece through the struggles of individual workplaces. By 1930 weekly hours in Britain were down to 47 and by 1980 to 40.

Similarly, in the middle of the 19th century, a six day working week was taken as given. One explanation given for the weekend is that some Britons (not your ancestors, obviously) tended to spend their one day off drinking more than praying – opting for gin rather than chapel, so to speak -and would then skip work on Mondays to recover. The 1850 Factory Act thus provided for a half day on Saturdays, allowing the rest of Saturday for merriment and enabling everyone to turn up bright eyed and bushy tailed on Monday morning. The full two day weekend is said to have originated in parts of the US, to accommodate the Jewish community whose day of religious observance in Saturday, and to have been cemented by the Great Depression.

The point is that it was previously thought that particular lengths and patterns to working weeks were somehow natural, and that reducing their length would bring economic ruin. It didn’t.

45 hours

Almost a fifth of Britons in employment work over 45 hours a week, according to the Office of National Statistics. That’s over 6 million of us. Three quarters of these long-hour workers are men and a quarter women.

45 hours is equivalent to a six day week.

We moved from a six- to a five-day working week a century ago, but it seems that 20 per cent of people working in Britain today aren’t yet benefiting .

Shorter working week, better mental health, less human misery

You can’t think straight and you feel constantly sick. You feel utterly overwhelmed with stuff that must be done, and so get nothing done.  Pleasure is a vague and distant memory, and there seems to be an invisible wall between you and the world. There seems no point in getting out of bed, so you don’t.

This is what mental illness can feel like. It’s a horrible, awful place to be.

There is a welcome focus on mental health services in the news today. But how much better for the sum of human happiness to prevent the mental illness in the first place.

A shorter working week would help, says the UK’s top public health doctor John Ashton. In July, he said in this article, “When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress that people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, [work-related] mental health is clearly a major issue. We should be moving towards a four-day week because the problem we have in the world of work is you’ve got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs”.

Working hours may even be the single most important factor in mental health. “The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population”, says the Mental Health Foundation. They say it is estimated that nearly three in ten employees will experience a mental health problem in any one year. Long-time expert on well-being, Professor Cary Cooper, estimates that stress costs employers £100 billion per year. The human cost is, of course, incalculable.