Britain needs a 21 hour working week

Britain faces an environmental, social and economic crises. A 21 hour working week is one approach to this triple crunch.

Our guest writer is Anna Coote, head of social policy at the new economics foundation

There’s no such thing as a new idea.  But sometimes an old idea deserves a fresh look because things have changed and its hour has come.

One such idea is to shorten the working week.  This is proposed in a new report by nef (the new economics foundation) as one way to tackle the environmental, social and economic crises that are shaping politics in the 21st century. But the idea is more radically framed than it used to be. Instead of a minor reduction to, say, 35 hours, the call is for a substantial shift in the balance of paid and unpaid time, moving towards 21 hours as the new standard.

The crises we face are inter-related – the combination is unprecedented.  We have rapidly depleting natural resources and accelerating climate change; widening inequalities and growing concern about social fragmentation and disorder; collapse of global financial systems, a deep and intractable economic downturn and astronomical levels of government debt. All this calls for a bold response.

Economic growth over the last 30 to 40 years has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption. People have worked punishingly long hours and then borrowed to consume what they still cannot afford. Hence the credit bubble that brought the global economy to its knees.

Over the same period, the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically. In the wake of the recession, nearly two and a half million are unemployed. The government is deeply indebted and gearing up for a massive cull of public sector jobs. Meanwhile, many are working long hours to hang on to their employment and increasing numbers say they find it hard to combine paid work with caring for children or having any other kind of life.

People on modest incomes struggle to pay for things they think they need to secure their place in society and to keep up with the pace of life – a car, a second car, household appliances, computer games, airline tickets, ‘convenience’ foods – and much, much more.  We have come to regard these accoutrements of middle-class life as our entitlement, signalling identity and status. Now we are urged to buy more to help the economy recover and grow.  But the consumerism that sustains western lifestyles is squandering precious natural resources and the climate clock is ticking.

A new, much shorter, ‘standard’ working week would provide an opportunity to spread paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population. That way, more people would have a chance not only to earn a living but also to do the other things that make human society possible – being parents and carers, friends and neighbours, creative individuals and engaged citizens. It would prompt us to adjust our values and expectations, to buy less stuff and live more sustainable lives. It would make it easier for men and women to share paid and unpaid work more equally. It would challenge the discredited model of global capitalism that is fuelled by credit and shopping.

The most obvious objection to a 21-hour week is that it will reduce earnings and hit low-income groups the hardest. nef is proposing a gradual transition, over a decade more, with time to put compensating measures in place. These would include trading wage increments for shorter hours year-on-year, giving employers incentives to take on more staff, limiting paid overtime, training to fill skills gaps, raising the minimum wage, more progressive taxation and arrangements for flexible working to suit the different needs of employees – such as job sharing, school term shifts, care leave and learning sabbaticals.

The French experiment with a maximum of 35 hours, or 1600 hours across the year, had mixed results. Introduced in 2000, it was popular with women with young children but less so with those whose employers made unpredictable changes to when they put in their hours. A key lesson is that people care as much about control over their time as they do about the number of hours they work.

The move to a 21-hour week should not be a matter of coercion.  Some will want to work longer hours and that should remain a matter of choice.  The point is to change what is generally accepted as the norm.  And to consider it as part of a larger transition aimed at building a sustainable future – by safeguarding natural resources, building a more equal and cohesive society, and developing an economy that serves the needs of people and the planet, rather than stripping their assets.

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40 Responses to “Britain needs a 21 hour working week”

  1. Elisabeth Whitebread

    RT @leftfootfwd: A 21-hour working week can help our environmental, social & economic crises

  2. nef

    Anna Coote explains why Britain needs a 21 hour working week on @leftfootfwd:

  3. Gwen Powell

    RT @theneweconomics Anna Coote explains why Britain needs a 21 hour working week on @leftfootfwd:

  4. Aveen McHugh

    21-hour working wk can help our environmental, social & economic crises (via @leftfootfwd) yes but need pay/tax sorted

  5. Paulo Coimbra

    RT @theneweconomics: Anna Coote explains why Britain needs a 21 hour working week on @leftfootfwd:

  6. Nuno Leal

    RT @theneweconomics: Anna Coote explains why Britain needs a 21 hour working week on @leftfootfwd:

  7. Charles Barry

    This argument is a deeply stupid one that does not merit detailed discussion.

    The most significant drawback is obviously that by cutting working hours from 40 to 21, you are giving the poorest people a 50% pay cut. No matter, you argue, let’s just raise the minimum wage! Well, if you feel that strongly, why not raise the minimum wage and let people work the extra hours…? And I doubt that you’re going to have enough money to raise the minimum wage by 50% overnight!

    It also falls over the hurdle of the famous “lump of labour” fallacy, that is the idea that the amount of work in the economy is fixed, so by shortening working hours, we can increase the employment rate. This is wrong. By restricting the supply of labour (by mandating 21 hour weeks) all you do is raise the cost of employment (not to mention with the higher minimum wage), which makes companies keener to not employ people – use machinery more etc. The overall effect (as witnessed in France) has been a marked increase in the unemployment rate (before the recession!).

    My final and most philosophical objection to a 21 hour working week is that fundamentally it is a move by the government to reallocate resources in the labour market. It is a nanny state manouever that says “I know whats better for you”. Maybe I want to work 50 hours a week, not 40! Maybe I find milling round my house or going for walks in the countryside or other ways of using this new-found “leisure time” so utterly boring and banal that I crave going back to the job I love. But no, somebody in Whitehall knows best. In essence, a 21 hour working week is a violation of my right to work and of my basic civil liberties.

    A 21 hour working week, phased in over a decade or not, is an utterly stupid and contemptible violation of the basic principles of both economics and our democratic society. It hurts the poor, it damages the economy and it would increase not decrease the social problems in our society. It is a piece of zombie economics, like the idea that the free market can regulate itself, that should have two shotgun pellets promptly blasted through its head every time it even attempts to crawl out of the grave.

    It should not have left the office watercooler, let alone be publicised on such a major blog.

  8. Calverts

    Why Britain needs a 21 hour working week: [email protected]

  9. Lottie Lodge

    Proposing a 21-hour working week to improve economical gubbins, by @leftfootfwd:

  10. Tori Williams

    RT @leftfootfwd: A 21-hour working week can help our environmental, social & economic crises

  11. Tony Troughton-Smith

    RT @leftfootfwd: Britain needs a 21 hour working week – not just Britain though!

  12. william ellis

    RT @theneweconomics: Anna Coote explains why Britain needs a 21 hour working week on @leftfootfwd:

  13. M Harris

    Is this a parody of the sort of nonsense thinktanks churn out?

  14. Peter Carrol

    This article is right. We need to explore other ways of measuring our well-being as growing our GDP, increasing our per-capita income, building our wealth cannot continue forever. The earths resources are finite, and this relentless drive for more and more is unsustainable and will, if unchecked, lead us to disaster.

  15. HeidiNeukermans

    I love working less and becoming a more active citizen in my local community, as long as I can pay my life. But I can tell LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) helps me in spending less money but more time in the community. Less stress is another reason why I want a 21 hour working week: Stress makes one sick. I do not prefere to get sick by stress and to spend money on my illness caused by stress.

  16. Costello

    Well it’s certainly an interesting argument in that it impressively straddles – and exquisitely so! – the line between stupitidy and balls to the wall roaring insanity.

  17. Mark Richardson

    @ Charles Barry

    I find it interesting that you would expend such an amount of energy typing a lengthy and articulate (if somewhat ill-tempered and poorly researched) response to an idea which you claim is self-evidently wrong. Perhaps having such a tightly wound character is why you are instinctively against the idea – you seem so driven to ‘get to work’ that in your spare time you get to work writing, writing, writing in the comment section of blogs, denouncing other people’s ideas.

    Perhaps the author of the article should have placed the need for a shorter working week within the context of the need for a zero growth economy – a need which has become rather more urgent in recent years unless you, Mr Blog Commenter Barry, have somehow solved the surplus liquidity problem (in which case, I’d get to work on the Nobel Prize acceptance speech if I were you). As for this being a case of ‘Nanny State’ economics – economies based on growth actually require people to consume more and to work more, particularly so once surplus liquidity becomes a global problem (as it self-evidently has in recent years). So there is no ‘freedom’ to want to work more – never mind the fact that most people cannot afford to reduce their hours even if they wanted to, the economic structures we are living in depend on people requesting to work more hours.

  18. John77

    Since I spend more than 21 hours per week on the background reading I need to do plus government-mandated accounting and record-keeping before I start on anything income-generating, I have to ask “what planet is she living on?”
    I suppose it would reduce the unemployment figures if I had a full-time PA and a research assistant (to read everything that looked as if it might be relevant and feed me a synopsis) but then three of us would have to live on my earnings, which wouldn’t feed, clothe and house three people.
    Her idea is that the cut in my income would mean that I would give up the car I rarely use (but do need it when I use it), the TV (except that I’ve never owned a TV), the computer – but that is essential for my work (I have never bought a computer game), airline tickets (apart from work, one trip every ten years on average), household appliances – no I am not going to give up my vacuum cleaner because my son has asthma and a dust allergy, the fridge is needed to stop food going bad, so does she want me to give up the oven? or something that I don’t have? and ‘convenience’ foods – er, my mother taught me to cook (and later my sisters taught me again the bits I forgot).
    Anna Coote has been employed by the New Statesman, a think-tank funded by New Labour peer David Sainsbury and Quangos for most of her adult life so her perspective is that everyone who is not on benefits lives a comfortable wasteful life, which would be improved by giving up unnecessary luxuries. Out here, where we have to work for our living and worry about out future in retirement without a gold-plated public sector pension, reality is different from her imagination.
    Peter Carroll’s second and third sentences are right, but not the first. The article is ridiculous. We have 5.1m unemployed (including those of Incapacity Benefit) and over five times that many employed. Moving the vast majority to 21-hour week would reduce working hours by 40% and useful production by much more, probably by two-thirds. We need to reduce waste but not go back to the 1930s.

  19. Contact

    […] Britain needs a 21 hour working week | Left Foot Forward […]

  20. john harvey

    This is not the proper role of government.
    people have the right to perform work, government dosn’t have the right to interfere as it is increasingly doing in peoples lives.
    Small, minimal government is desirable and right.
    if the environment needs improving address the environment.
    If a person cares about over consuming and unbalances one can choose to address these in ones own life according to the dictates of ones own concience.
    by the way having things like having two cars and etc are not needs they are luxuries.
    6 days shalt thy labour not 21 hours !

  21. Intestinal Cleansing |

    […] Britain needs a 21 hour working week | Left Foot Forward […]

  22. Tom Walker

    Charles Barry wrote: “It also falls over the hurdle of the famous “lump of labour” fallacy…”

    Except that this “famous fallacy” claim is a canard, ceaselessly repeated but NEVER substantiated. For the real story behind this baseless fallacy claim, please see the September 2007 article in the Review of Social Economy, “Why Economists Dislike a Lump of Labor.”

    Sadly, people who irrationally FEAR shorter working time are adamant about their made up “reasons” for opposing it. That’s why they feel compelled to denounce the very suggestion as “stupid” and insist that shouldn’t even be a public conversation about it. How pathetic.


    The lump-of-labor fallacy has been called one of the “best known fallacies in economics.” It is widely cited in disparagement of policies for reducing the standard hours of work, yet the authenticity of the fallacy claim is questionable, and explanations of it are inconsistent and contradictory. This article discusses recent occurrences of the fallacy claim and investigates anomalies in the claim and its history. S.J. Chapman’s coherent and formerly highly regarded theory of the hours of labor is reviewed, and it is shown how that theory could lend credence to the job-creating potentiality of shorter working time policies. It concludes that substituting a dubious fallacy claim for an authentic economic theory may have obstructed fruitful dialogue about working time and the appropriate policies for regulating it.

  23. About right for an nef report

    […] 5th, 2010 · No Comments Well it’s certainly an interesting argument in that it impressively straddles – and exquisitely so! – the […]

  24. Philip Walker

    Mark Richardson: Economies based on growth actually require people to consume more and to work more.

    Do you mean zero growth in total economic output, or per capita?


    1. An economy includes goods and services. Economic growth can include more services, which do not require additional consumption of material resources. This is where most of our growth comes from in the UK.

    2. The production side of economic growth (if you want to call it that) principally comes through higher productivity, not longer work hours. Increased productivity is why we have shorter working weeks and more wealth than our grandparents.

    3. If we had had ‘no economic growth’ from the nineteenth century onwards, we would have been stuck with dirty industries. Economic growth has made it possible to have cleaner, greener industries. Trying to stop the economy from growing for the sake of the environment is counter-productive.

    4. By stopping people from working the hours they would like, we produce fewer goods and services and fewer goods and services are consumed. In aggregate, we are made poorer. How much poorer do you think we should be?

  25. Luis Enrique

    just … incredible. Why do these clowns continue to be taken seriously by the left wing? It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that so many on the left wing cannot see how useful the NEF is. Surely anybody bothering to think through the consequences of this idea can see what a dumb idea it is?

    I’m sympathetic with the desirability of a shorter working weeks (that’s why I see the gradual decrease in working hours over time – which the NEF ought to know about, presuming they’ve looked at the data) as a good thing. I also like the sound of reducing “material consumption” but of course people may work long hours developing sustainable and installing technologies, or substituting labour for materials (not to mention, simply producing intangible goods). Imposing poverty on people is of course on way of reducing material consumption.

    I think the right legislation might help increasing the flexibility of working hours, making it easier for people to work 3 or 4 day weeks if they want to (or shorter hours each day) but you have to recognize that in many jobs, a half-time week is less than half as productive as full-time week.

    Has anybody here ever worried about the “decline of manufacturing” in this country? How about the UK TV & film industry, architecture? Name your industry. What do you think would happen to all these industries if this daft idea was implemented? What do you think would happen to demand for labour-saving plant and technologies in the UK (i.e. substituting captial for labour in production)? What’s that going to do for the labour share of income, do you suppose? And how about inequality? What do you think this’d do to the gap between people working jobs where 21 hours can be imposed and those – professionals and others – where there’s no way of imposing this rule?

    (note – if you really are worried about “consuming the world’s resources” – ask yourself this – if we every make the transition to a solar & wind powered economy, using sustainable carbon based (i.e. from biomass) materials, and whatever else features in the optimistic sustainable future you can envisage, do you think that would entail GDP shrinking? Of course not! GDP growth is NOT the enemy of sustainability)

  26. Luis Enrique

    talking of embarrassing … quite a typo. I meant of course, useLESS

  27. NR

    Patronising nonsense. The idea is that sending people home after working half a week will conserve resources, stave off global warming, close the gap between rich and poor, and give us better private lives.

    But part-time work is more expensive than contracted work beyond typing up letters and flipping burgers. More admin, more fragmentation of work, etc, etc. That’s why most companies don’t use part-time labour. If it wasn’t a big difference, either the companies or the workers would have negotiated such an arrangement already. Unless we’re all stupid?

    So we all take a big pay cut, what then? You’ve raised minimum wage to save the low earners, but your tax take hasn’t gone up – if anything it’s nosedived. What will you use to pay for this?

    Meanwhile there’s less spare cash to pay for, I dunno, research into new technologies. You know, efficient green energy sources, that sort of thing.

    And as we’re so much poorer, we won’t want to ship all that stuff around the planet anymore. Oh well, the Chinese probably won’t mind going back to rice farming. And Haiti and Chile will be fine without all that aid, I’m sure.

    At least we’ll all be shagging a lot more, since there’s no money to do anything else. That’s a bonus, isn’t it? No, don’t worry about population size, we’ll just shift to a 10 hour week in a few years…

  28. David Ellis

    Under capitalism rising productivity is always met with job cuts rather than wage increases or cuts in the length of the working week. That is the whole reason for the Welfare State that so burdens our existence. The 21-hour week is long, long overdue. It will finally end the war between the sexes and allow our children and communities to cast off the excessive number of policemen and social workers they require to stop them discending into chaos. It can be encouraged through the tax system rather than legislation (10% rate of tax on first 21 hours, 22% on anything over) that will concentrate the minds of industry and commerce whilst at the same time allowing it to retain operational flexibility when needed. Share the wealth, share the work.

  29. Don Quixote

    While I admit to having certain reservations about a 21 hour week, I must wonder whether some of the more vocal critics bothered to even read the article before the wrote their objections to the title. Charles Barry and Luis Enrique complain that no one should be forced to work less, but the article clearly says that “the move to 21 hours should not be a matter of coercion”, for example.

    Like I said, I think 21 hours is taking it a bit far, but shake up in the standard working week is long overdue. Utah experimented in 2008-09 with a four-day week, where the working day was lengthened to ten hours to make up for lost time. The initiative saved the state $1.8 million in electricity bills (the equivalent of 6000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide) with greater savings expected in coming years, led to a reduction in absenteeism and was popular among employees involved (82% said they would like to continue working under 4/10).

    If anyone’s interested the report is availible at:

  30. Philip Walker

    David Ellis: If you were right, then thousands of years of human development would have resulted in the vast majority of us being unemployed. Instead, thousands of years of human development has gone from us making flint axes to making iPods. The labour freed up by rising productivity makes its way — eventually! — into other industries. Thus, you need to look at the economy as a whole, and there you see that unemployment does not rise significantly, but rather rising productivity increases our overall output and leisure.

    It’s called ‘progress’.

  31. Tim Rose

    Bring it on! Great idea. When I began my working life (in the late 1960s would you believe) it was taken for granted we were about to begin an age of increased leisure. Like most conventional wisdoms, this proved utterly wrong and the opposite happened. Keep up the good work!

  32. NR

    Don Quixote: that, if anything, is the weakest part of the argument. Business works to push the cultural norm of working life towards efficiency and productivity, only restrained by legislation and whatever the pool qualified labour is willing to put up with.

    If you want to make 21hrs a week the norm you would have to coerce business into such an inefficient employment practice. Should you manage to get that kind of legislation passed (and frankly I wouldn’t get your hopes up with the current crop of politicians), business will either pack up and leave (if they can get the work done more cheaply by tapping a less qualified labour pool), or they’ll stay put and move to 21 hours. But they’ll move so quickly there won’t be anything resembling choice for the employees. About the same amount of choice as we have now, in fact.

  33. Tim Worstall

    “Under capitalism rising productivity is always met with job cuts rather than wage increases or cuts in the length of the working week.”

    Dunno which planet’s version of capitalism you’ve been studying mate but it sure as hell ain’t this one’s.

    We’ve had more or less capitalism in the UK since its first bat squeaks around 1750. Since then real wages (that means after we’ve dealt with inflation) have risen by a factor of around 10. The working week has around halved. The number of jobs has risen from perhaps 4 million or so to around 30 million.

    So, capitalism has provided more jobs at higher wages for less hours worked. Not sure it’s possible to have a more emphatic rejection of your wibbles really.

  34. David Ellis

    Tim: in that case I expect you’ll have no objection to the further reduction of the working week to 21 hours straight away so that men and women can look after their own children, elderly and communities.

  35. David Ellis

    Philip Walker: `It’s called progress’.

    But what a crooked path that progress takes eh Philip? Capitalism relies on growth to compensate for mass unemployment. That compensating factor just disappeared with functioning banks.

  36. Joe Mulhall

    It is progressive policy ideas such as this that could really make a difference at the next election if Labour where bold enough adopt them. It might also put pay to the rise of the far right in economically deprived areas. It could provide the much needed jobs for people who currently feel abandoned. On that note, not sure if anyone else on here got today’s email from the Hope not Hate campaign regarding a new publication. I just donated and would encourage others to do so as well. Unison are doubling every donation!!!

  37. Anna Coote

    Thanks for all the comments and a good debate. It is a pity some of you get so angry but perhaps that is due to stress arising from overwork, unemployment or anxieties related to earnings, consumption and status. If you read nef’s report, “21 Hours”, you will see that our proposal for moving to a much shorter working week is designed to address all of these problems – and more! As we argue, the assumption that the economy should keep on growing simply isn’t feasible, for social, economic and environmental reasons.
    Tom Walker sent me this observation from JK Galbraith (1958), which underlines my point that there is no such thing as a new idea, only good ideas that deserve a fresh look. “If we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, to decrease the waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!”
    And for those who worry about an over-bearing state, it is worth remembering that, among much else, the state (with the unions) brought us our weekends, paid holidays and parental leave.

  38. Unions and environmentalism – uneasy bedfellows? | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC

    […] Second is the call for a 21 hour working week made by NEF authors in 21 hours and summarised here at Left Foot Forwards.  […]

  39. SLK

    I think this is a cause worth campaigning for. What does the rest of the EU say about this matter? I believe that 21hours could be the basic working week as opposed to the massive 40hours (or a lot more). It is too much and cannot be sustained for a lifetime. People are not machines.

    However, I think this really depends upon the sector. In manufacturing (blue collar jobs) 21 hours a week would not sustain the company or the worker. As it is, people all over the world in office (or white collar jobs) enjoy greater flexibility in work and the labour process – though some would say that office work brings its own sort of dissatisfaction.

    In this case there has to be benefits (should such a decrease in the hours of a working week occur) for people in production.

    Ceridian – The Future of Work

    The moral basis for 21hours a week is based on the idea (I believe) that if living standards are improved (for example – time for leisure, health, good food, family etc.) that people will get by with less money. There may be some middle way between the existing system and an imposed 21 hour working week. Germany would entertain this idea at least as their culture is very family orientated (for instance – they do not open their shops on a Sunday so people who work in the retail sector do not have to work on this day). Here in Britain, on the other hand, this would never wash. We work the most hours in Europe.

    Blame Thatcher and Reagan.

    Seriously though, the 21 hour week is thought of as a measure to improve productivity overall and reduce levels of national unemployment with the effect of alleviating the social defecit of this. On an individual level, 21 hours may or may not be enough as it is almost certain that wages/salary will not increase if the working week is downsized.

    If this were to be brought in -the worst part would be the initial period when people readjust to having less wages but more spare time. The implications of 21hours a week of work for all would be huge and extensive.

    People live to work and I think this attitude can be traced back to, what Max Weber called ‘The Protestant work ethic’. This label is more relevant to the times in which this socioligist deemed it a phenomenon of industrial society (19th Century). But the idea of a ‘work ethic’ or a moral obligation to work oneself into the ground (in effect) with excessive hours of gainful employment dominates the culture of work.

    I work around 20hours a week and earn enough to get by. I like to have time to think. I have always been told that ‘time to think’ is a dangerous thing. I think this goes hand in hand with the notion that ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’.

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