A 21-hour working week is long overdue

Sarah Lyall argues that a 21 hour working week would have positive effects above and beyond the time spent not working.

 

Sarah Lyall works on the social policy team of the new economics foundation (nef)

At nef we are known for our strong agenda on tackling inequality. Examining the case for a shorter working week needs to be part of this.

As highlighted in our work on 21 hours (pdf), the most obvious transitional problem in moving to shorter working hours is the reduction in the amount of money people earn. What then of the people who are working full-time (or as many hours as they can) but who are already feeling the pinch?

Moving to a shorter working week and redistributing work is actually about tackling inequality for a fairer society, not penalising the poor.

What is crucial is how we approach this transition:

• Firstly, we need to start with those who want to work reduced hours, but struggle to do so. The UK has the longest average annual working hours of all the major economies in Europe.

Analysis of labour force survey (LFS) reveals that there are millions of people who want to work less – including for less pay – but struggle to do so (‘overemployment’). This is particularly prevalent amongst older workers, in particular those aged 55 and older.

• Secondly, 21 hours would create opportunities for more paid working-time for those who are currently underemployed.

Based on the LFS, in the second quarter of 2011, 2.7 million people (9.1 per cent of those employed) were underemployed in the UK. This is almost the same number as those overemployed (9.2 per cent of the employed population).

While this is not an issue that can be tackled by simple substitution (hours from the overemployed transferred to the underemployed), there is a demonstrable case for redistribution of paid work.

Notably, in Germany, the introduction of Kurzarbeit (‘short-time’) has helped ensure that its unemployment rate actually decreased during the recent recession.

• The shift towards 21 hours would be incremental, and increased hour-for-hour productivity would give employers the chance to raise hourly rates, making a shortened working week an increasingly viable option.

In the US, many companies are experimenting with the ‘results only work environment’ (ROWE), in which employees have control over their time, and are evaluated on what they get done, not how many hours they are at work.

Research shows that with ROWE, staff turnover is 45 per cent lower for employees and productivity is 35 per cent higher compared to those in an ordinary working environment.

• This has to be part of a wider transition that includes decarbonising the economy, promoting prosperity without growth, and changing norms about how much consumption is ‘enough’.

Indeed, the shorter working hours agenda is a practical way for those who care about safeguarding the natural resources of the planet to break the damaging habit of living to work, working to earn, and earning to consume.

We would start to adapt our expectations, our lifestyles and our patterns of consumption. Cultural assumptions about what constitutes well-being would begin to change. We would be teaching ourselves to have less stuff – but more life.

If we want to see the UK become a fair society which ensures social justice and well-being for all, we must examine the case for a shorter working week. It’s about time.

See also:

Raab’s attacks on workers’ rights are – surprise – based on no evidenceSarah Veale, November 16th 2011

Cameron and Osborne want the unemployed to work for £1.78 an hourAlex Hern, November 10th 2011

With Plan B, we can have a good economy for a good societyHoward Reed, October 31st 2011

Boris fiddles as London prepares for transport chaosAlex Hern, October 19th 2011

Mail masks Thatcher’s true legacy: Unions busted, hours extended, productivity held backDaniel Elton, May 5th 2011

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21 Responses to “A 21-hour working week is long overdue”

  1. Phil Jones

    A 21-hour working week is long overdue, writes Sarah Lyall of @theneweconomics: http://t.co/U4FS3Hdt

  2. Gruff Diver

    A 21-hour working week is long overdue http://t.co/ioMJWHhM not sure about this (sounds good but..)

  3. Sarah Lyall

    Why changing our working patterns is really about tackling another frontier of INEQUALITY @leftfootfwd: http://t.co/dLkS0wFb

  4. Andy Pearson

    Why changing our working patterns is really about tackling another frontier of INEQUALITY @leftfootfwd: http://t.co/dLkS0wFb

  5. Julia Slay

    A 21-hour working week is long overdue, writes Sarah Lyall of @theneweconomics: http://t.co/U4FS3Hdt

  6. Freya El Baz

    A 21-hour working week is long overdue, writes Sarah Lyall of @theneweconomics: http://t.co/U4FS3Hdt

  7. Catherine Dawson

    But what of those struggling to make ends meet working full-time on minimum wage, or juggling several jobs? You need to have the means both for a decent standard of life and to give you the opportunity to improve your lot, whether that’s investment in tools or training. I’m in favour of normalising and even rewarding flexible PT working, but care must be taken not to penalise those who have a need to maximize low earnings.

  8. B Rawsthorn

    RT @leftfootfwd: A 21-hour working week is long overdue http://t.co/Uqg1ay1p #spartacusreport http://t.co/DoB3Q4Ih Resonsible Reform

  9. C Wulf

    RT @leftfootfwd: A 21-hour working week is long overdue http://t.co/79Q3OZVQ >presume this is a piss take

  10. Charlie B

    @leftfootfwd "A 21-hour working week is long overdue http://t.co/UH9JaUbx" you're almost as Utopian as @LibertarianView

  11. Nick Lincoln

    I've read this twice now & I think these people aren't joking: http://t.co/tm2zqqW4 HT to @LibertarianView

  12. Murray Rothbard

    I've read this twice now & I think these people aren't joking: http://t.co/tm2zqqW4 HT to @LibertarianView

  13. Billy Bowden

    I've read this twice now & I think these people aren't joking: http://t.co/tm2zqqW4 HT to @LibertarianView

  14. Henry Oliver

    I've read this twice now & I think these people aren't joking: http://t.co/tm2zqqW4 HT to @LibertarianView

  15. Gawain Towler

    RT @leftfootfwd: A 21-hour working week is long overdue http://t.co/2XsjRhmA > Utterly unhinged, beyond parody

  16. Richard Lowe

    About to start 50+hr wks. RT @GawainTowler RT @leftfootfwd 21hr working wk is overdue http://t.co/GRy3Lne5 > Utterly unhinged, beyond parody

  17. Daniel Doyle

    The lunatic left want a 21 Hour working week http://t.co/YzCTXjOo I can't see their supporters wanting any increase in hours #UKIP

  18. Sean O'Hare

    Why stop at 21hours? Why not gradually reduce the working week to zero hours? You can then all join the ranks of the benefit cheats.

  19. Glen Wilson

    The lunatic left want a 21 Hour working week http://t.co/YzCTXjOo I can't see their supporters wanting any increase in hours #UKIP

  20. Luke Edwards

    What’s all this guff about introducing 21-hour working week? It won't happen. It’s biggest pile of crap I’ve ever read http://t.co/J8d38K59

  21. Lenny Darksphere

    The life I would love to lead: http://t.co/jl0v11MS // via @ThanetWaves

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