Three steps to a shorter working week

Photo credit:   Ant Smith

September 18, 2013 // By: Anna Coote

What’s a ‘normal’ working week? Forty hours is pretty standard for full-time workers in the UK, but suppose it were 30 hours instead? 

Our new book, Time on Our Side, argues that a shorter, more flexible working week would be good for people, for the environment and for the economy. Why? Because it is often extremely stressful to work long hours and that is bad for health. For many of us, our working hours leave us too little time to be parents, carers and active citizens. There’s strong evidence that people who work longer hours have a larger ecological footprint.

As well as the personal benefits, cutting the length of the working week would help to safeguard natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would also help to manage a sustainable economy by creating more jobs and cutting unemployment. 

How can it be done?  Other countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, have considerably shorter average hours than the UK. Their economies are just as strong, or stronger.  Learning from them, and from other ideas put forward in Time on Our Side, there are at least three strategies for moving to a shorter working week.

  1. Trade productivity gains for a more time each year, rather than money.
    This will work better for some kinds of employment than for others (such as education, health services and social care) where productivity is neither possible nor desirable.
     
  2. Follow Belgium and the Netherlands by enshrining in law the right to request shorter working hours and the right to fair treatment regardless of hours worked.
    Employees would be able to apply for shorter hours, within agreed parameters, while employers would be obliged not to withhold permission unreasonably. It would be unlawful to discriminate unfairly against individuals because they do shorter hours. This would help to improve flexibility for workers and to establish shorter hours working as an entitlement rather than a deviation from the norm.
     
  3. Introduce shorter hours at both ends of the age scale.
    At one end, young people entering the labour market for the first time could be offered a four-day week (or its equivalent). That way, each successive cohort adds to the numbers working a shorter week, but no one has to cut their hours. Before long, there would be a critical mass of workers on shorter hours and others may want to do the same.

    At the other end of the age scale, gradual reductions could be introduced for older workers. For example, those aged 55 and over could reduce their working week by one hour each year. Someone on 40 hours a week at 55 would thus be working 30 hours a week by 65 and – if they continue in paid employment – 20 hours by 75.

    The shift would be gradual and universal, enabling people to carry on working for more years without undue stress and strain, adjusting slowly but steadily to shorter hours and then to retirement. Over time, the cohorts of youngsters who enter the workforce on a four-day week will reach 55. Thirty hours will be the new standard. Gradual reductions could continue for older workers: deciding how exactly this is done can be left to future generations.

As authors of Time on Our Side point out, this will need to happen slowly but steadily over a decade or more. It won’t be easy. The most obvious problem is how it will affect low paid workers. 

For many, a shorter working week now would lead to abject poverty. But this is a problem of pay rates, not working time. The answer is not to force people to work long hours to feed and house their families, but to tackle low pay directly. We need to decide what is a reasonable minimum wage or ‘living wage’ for workers who put in 30 rather than 40 or 50 hours a week.  Then we can work out what governments, employers, trade unions and political campaigners must do to achieve levels of pay that are compatible with working hours that are socially just and sustainable.

Time on Our Side: Why we all need a shorter working week, edited by Anna Coote and Jane Franklin, and published by nef, is out today. Buy your copy for £14.99 plus P&P now, or download a free overview.

Issues

Work & Time, Energy & Climate Change

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