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Working Less for the Planet

Is It Time to Transition To 21 Hour Work Weeks?

Less paid work means more civic involvement, satisfied lives & ecological sustainability

By Matt McDermott

I've been sitting with the New Economic Foundation's 21 hours report for a week now. Sometimes these things just have to percolate for a while before commenting on them. The basic idea of the report is that not only is a shorter working week inevitable, but that it's a good thing. And the more I think about it, I tend to agree.

Anna Coote, NEF's head of social policy says, "So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. And our consumption habits are squandering the earth's natural resources. Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We'd have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbors. And we could even become better employees: Less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive. It is time to break the power of the old industrial clock, take back our lives and work for a sustainable future."

I've probably lost a bunch of you back on the 'spending less time in paid work' part. You're not wrong in thinking that the NEF is suggesting people earn less money. We're not talking about working fewer hours with the same salary.

More than anything that's how the report says the intertwined problems of overwork, unemployment, overconsumption of natural resources, high carbon emissions, low social well being, and increasing societal inequality can all be addressed.

Consuming Less, Doing Less is the Greenest Thing Out There
I've long said that being satisfied with what you have and simply doing less is central to making your life greener.

So I'm sympathetic to the idea of more or less everyone working part-time--the report says a 21 hour work week, or the equivalent over the year in more intense chunks--being a solution to our environmental and social problems. After all, anyone reading Planet Green likely already has all that they need from a survival and well-being standpoint.

For those of you not convinced that doing less is the answer, NEF touts the following benefits of the 21 hour work week:

More People Working, In Greater Control of Their Time
A shorter working week could help distribute paid work more evenly across the population, reducing ill-being associated with unemployment, long working hours and too little control over time. It would make it possible for paid and unpaid work to be distributed more equally between women and men; for parents to spend more time with their children - and to spend that time differently; for people to delay retirement if they wanted to, and to have more time to care for others, to participate in local activities and to do other things of their choosing.

NEF goes on to say that as work gets redistributed the differences in income between top and bottom earners will decrease, bringing with it a decrease in social problems.

Keep that communism knee jerk in check for a second and remind yourself that no one is talking about absolute wage equality or enforced redistribution here. Also consider that income inequality in the developed world, particularly the United States, is an historically high levels currently: The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, with the middle class decreasing and in debt up to their eyeballs. Not a sustainable situation economically or environmentally.

Working Less Leads to Lower & Greener Consumption
Yes, a shorter working week would mean that a good number of people would earn less money and have more time on their hands. NEF points out that this is actually a good thing because instead of relying on consumer goods by default (some of which are undoubtedly purchased because its more convenient to do so when you are so busy) people will start doing more things for themselves.

From growing more of your own food and cooking more for yourself, to repairing more items instead of throwing them away and buying new, to walking and bicycling more rather than taking motorized transit, all of these things lead to lower carbon footprint and lower ecological impact.

More Civic Engagement, Greater Value of Home-Based Work...
Those are just two of the main benefit areas in some detail. NEF goes on to say that civic engagement would be improved, the economy made more robust and adaptable, public services strengthened, and home care and homemaking more highly valued with greater gender equality. Check out their reasoning on these.

They also go on to say--very much rightly so--that this can't and shouldn't happen overnight. A great deal of logistical, policy and social adjustment would have to go along with it.

It seems like the greatest challenge in all this is the social aspect, the shifts in perception, the shifts in mind that would have to occur. We are collectively so conditioned to assume that working more is the natural thing to do insomuch as a higher income and more stuff is the goal. Bigger is better. We need to shift that towards small is beautiful, simpler is sustainable.




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