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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