Free time - but only if you’re rich

Photo credit:   markhillary

January 18, 2012 // By: Mike Harris

Last week hundreds of people turned out for our public lecture on a shorter working week, and the event received widespread media coverage. Interest in the idea of much shorter and more flexible working hours has continued to grow since we published our 21 Hours report just last year. Something is going on.

The economy is back in recession. Mainstream politics focuses on whether to accept most or all of the cuts, while welfare reforms are terrifying thousands of families. People want to talk about alternatives – and take action for themselves.

The problem is, when it comes to working hours, most of us can’t. A wide gap exists between the hours people want to work and the hours they actually work. Based on the official Labour Force Survey, in the second quarter of 2011 2.7 million people (9.1 per cent of the employed population) were underemployed, i.e. want to work more but cannot. but almost the same number of people were overemployed, i.e. want to work less but struggle to do so (9.2 per cent of those employed).

The reason for the overemployment might seem obvious: people can’t afford to work fewer hours. But the official figure is actually based on people who say they want to work fewer hours for a corresponding reduction in pay, in other words, they are willing to earn  less money for a shorter working week. So why don’t they?

Partly because, as Juliet Schor pointed out at our lecture, we lack a genuine free market in working hours. Most of us don’t have any real choice in the hours we work; they are set by employers. We often have to take it or leave it – and the Government’s proposed reforms to employment law are likely to make it more difficult for us to do anything else. Making shorter and more flexible hours a default right would help correct this imbalance.

But what about money? As Juliet also argued, the most realistic and non-coercive transition to shorter working hours could be achieved by focusing on new entrants to the labour market, that is people leaving school and university. Establishing as normal a three or four day working week for new workers is much easier than asking existing employees to make a difficult adjustment. This is exactly what happened in The Netherlands – and it worked.

Second, the debate on working time is not just about time at work. It raises a whole set of wider questions about our economy and society. Why are housing, food and transport so expensive and how can they be made more affordable and sustainable? How can we improve public services to enhance social justice and wellbeing for all? How we can further gender equality within households and across society?

No wonder some of its opponents don’t want it to become more popular….

Issues

Work & Time

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