Wouldn’t it be good if the weekend started on a Thursday evening, and we went back to work on a Tuesday morning. The Monday morning feeling would become the Tuesday morning feeling, and on Thursday we would say Thank* its Thursday, or TFI Thursday.
It’s a dream, of course, the country can’t afford it. Besides, if we only work three days a week, that means you will only get Investment and Business News three days a week. And that would surely be a blow. What would you rather have, a four-day weekend and only three issues of this newsletter a week, or a two-day weekend and all five issues?
What a terrible dilemma.
But a new study has proposed that we all start working 21 hours a week. And when you think about it, the idea has some merit.
Supposing we all worked fewer hours. Okay, we would be worse off. But then again, unemployment would fall because people who are currently unemployed could make up for the hours we have lost. This, in turn, would mean less money paid out as unemployment benefit, so we would pay less tax.
Okay, stop dreaming. Does the idea have any merits?
There was a time when we didn’t work so hard. Back in the days when we used to hunt and gather, there was no point. Early Homo sapiens, like other predators, had an awful lot of spare time.
Mind you, it wasn’t always a good thing. If there were no animals to hunt, or berries and fruits and nuts to gather, we went hungry. So, when times were bad, they were really bad.
The invention of agriculture changed the rules. We had to work harder, but we had more food. We suffered as a result, with many of the problems we are familiar with today. Problems with our backs, for example, only showing up in the fossil record after the invention of agriculture. We got smaller too, with the archaeological record showing as we hunted less and farmed more, average heights fell.(A trend that appears to have recently gone into reverse.) Later, the population started to increase, cancelling out the benefits of our greater productivity, meaning in many parts of the world we went hungry all over again.
Bear in mind, also, that we have been around as a species for about 150,000 years, and yet farming only came into existence a few thousand years before the birth of Christ. For around 95 per cent of our existence we were hunter-gatherers. It seems we are not designed to work until we drop. We are supposed to live a more sedentary life. Maybe we are supposed to work a few hours a week, and spend the rest of the time pondering and philosophising on the nature of existence. Either that or watching Eastenders. (On that subject, you may be interested to know that there is archaeological evidence to suggest the invention of Coronation Street predated the invention of agriculture – and anthropologists have recently come across bones of an early human which they have christened Ken Barlow Man.)
Anyway, on a less serious note, the New Economics Foundation has said: “Twenty-one hours is close to the average that people of working age in Britain spend in paid work and just a little more than the average spent in unpaid work. Experiments with shorter working hours suggest that they can be popular where conditions are stable and pay is favourable, and that a new standard of 21 hours could be consistent with the dynamics of a decarbonised economy.
“There is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered ‘normal’ today. Time, like work, has become commodified – a recent legacy of industrial capitalism. Yet the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions, where instant communications and mobile technologies bring new risks and pressures, as well as opportunities. The challenge is to break the power of the old industrial clock without adding new pressures, and to free up time to live sustainable lives.
“To meet the challenge, we must change the way we value paid and unpaid work. For example, if the average time devoted to unpaid housework and childcare in Britain in 2005 were valued in terms of the minimum wage, it would be worth the equivalent of 21 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product.”
It went on to cite examples of economies working when the week was made up of fewer hours: the three-day working week in Britain in 1974, the French imposition of a 35-hour week from 2000 to 2008, and a four-day week in Utah USA in 2008.
Funnily enough, Keynes predicted a time when we would all work fewer hours. As the New Economics Foundation said: “In 1930, John Maynard Keynes imagined that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the working week could be cut dramatically – not just to 21 hours but to 15 hours. He anticipated that we would no longer need to work long hours to earn enough to satisfy our material needs and our attention would turn instead to ‘how to use freedom from pressing economic cares’. Keynes was wrong in his forecast, but not at all wrong, it seems to us, to envisage a very different way of using time.”
Keynes, by the way, once said: “Avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour and the love of money is detestable.” Click here for a good article from The Times a couple of years ago, covering Keynes’ rather less famous ideas: See: The hippy guide to Keynesian economics
It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? And it does seem that while we have seen all these remarkable inventions that have meant we can produce so much more for less effort, maybe we haven’t fully benefited from them.
There is a snag with the idea, however; actually, there are several.
Firstly, in France, workers found it just impractical to cap their working week so low, and anecdotal evidence suggests they actually lied on their work sheet. It was a bizarre lie; you can imagine someone saying they came in to work on time, when in fact they were late. But the imposition of maximum working hours seemed to make people lie the other way round.
And in a way that is the problem. By imposing rules on how many hours you can work, you are rather dictating what people do.
Some people work longer hours because they want to, and who is to say that is wrong? Others need the extra money in order to pay the bills and keep the loan sharks at bay.
Then there’s economies of scale. For some jobs, we just have to work x-many hours, or else we can’t do them effectively. The author of this piece could stop mid-sentence, and come back tomorrow and finish it, but then he would lose the flow and the article would not be the same.
But the key problem is this. When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, it was an accident. He had left a culture of staphylococcus to one side, and later noticed that when the culture came into contact with a blue mould, colonies of bacteria next to the mould were dissolving. It’s a nice story, but it is told here to illustrate a point. You can imagine Fleming working in his lab, up all night, beavering away. What you can’t imagine is him making that discovery if he had worked a 21-hour week.
And that really is the point. In a world that has stopped innovating and discovering, a 21-hour week may work. Alternatively, if you want a world that stops innovating and discovering,then 35-hour weeks are fine. The New Economics Foundation is seeing the economy as something that is fixed. So if those with jobs work fewer hours, those without jobs can find they can start earning.
But the world is not fixed. It is changing, and change needs a dynamic economy.
See 21 Hours by the New Economics Foundation for the full report
© Investment & Business News 2013