The Case for a 21-Hour Work Week

It would create jobs and stop the unsustainable cycle of rampant consumerism.

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To save the world -- or really to even just make our personal lives better -- we will need to work less.

Time, like work, has become commodified, a recent legacy of industrial capitalism, where a controlled, 40-hour week in factories was necessary. Our behavior is totally out of step with human priorities and today’s economy. To lay the foundations for a "steady-state" economy -- one that can continue running sustainably forever -- a recent paper argues that it’s time for advanced developed countries transition to a normal 21-hour work week.

This does not mean a mandatory work week or leisure-time police. People can choose to work as long, or short, as they please. It’s more about resetting social and political norms. That is, the day when 1,092 hours of paid work per year becomes the "standard that is generally expected by government, employers, trade unions, employees, and everyone else."

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a "normal" 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and mostly just relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).

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The NEF argues we need to achieve truly happy lives, we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock ticking in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to feeding consumerism).

Not to mention, it may be the only way a modern global society won’t overwhelm the earth’s resources. Creating EU-level living standards for the entire world by 2050 would require a six-fold increase in the size of the global economy, with potentially devastating consequences. Instead of growing the economy, maybe we need to recalibrate society to make everyone happier and successful with less.

"The proposed shift towards 21 hours must be seen in terms of a broad, incremental transition to social, economic, and environmental sustainability," says the NEF in its report.

The challenges are great, none more so than figuring out how to make most of society be able to live on half of their current income. And no doubt, many will seize on this as socialism or worse. Many will object to being told that 21 hours is normal, or 80 hours is too much. But consider what John Maynard Keynes, (whose theories underpin much of the global response to the financial crises), said in 1930 about the goal of future societies. Keynes thought that by the start of the 21st century, we would work only 15 to 21 hours a week, and we would instead focus on "how to use freedom from pressing economic cares." As NEF writes: "Keynes was wrong in his forecast, but not at all wrong, it seems to us, to envisage a very different way of using time."

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Michael Coren covers science, economics and the environment. He is the cofounder of the multimedia production studio + newsroom MajorPlanet Studios.

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