One big idea to make everybody’s job better

Posted on Oct 10, 2013 02:15 PM |

One big idea to make everybody’s job better

Denmark shows how to do work-life balance by providing a shorter working week and flexibility for family life. Photo: Poul-Werner/flickr

Are you perpetually busy? Do you feel like your job takes up too much of your time? It’s not just you. Why are so many workers in advanced economies like Australia’s slaves to long working hours?

In her just-released book (you can download an excerpt here), The New Economics Foundation’s Anna Coote mounts the super-enticing argument for moving towards shorter, more flexible hours of work saying it could help tackle a multitude of problems that plague workers in countries like the UK and Australia. These include overwork, underemployment, low wellbeing, gender inequality, high-carbon consumption and the lack of time to live more balanced lives.

But most of us have little or no control over how much time we must devote to earning a living. “It has become ‘normal’ to spend between 35 and 45 hours in paid work each week, for somewhere between 45 and 48 weeks of the calendar year,” according to Anna Coote in Time on Your Side.

A sweeping change like this can’t be left up to individuals or workplaces to negotiate. A slow but steady switch throughout the economy would be how a 4-day working week would become the new norm. It’s similar to Scandinavian models where countries like Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands already have flexible workplaces and shorter working weeks.

Imagine if everyone who now works five days worked for four days instead?

“This opens up a range of opportunities for doing things differently. Each man and women would have 50 per cent more time to spend outside the workplace,” Coote wrote in The New Statesman.

“For a family with two adults who currently work five days a week, this could reduce the number of hours required for paid care by as much as two days a week, reducing the care bill by up to 40 per cent.”

“For households where one adult, usually the female, works short hours while the other works long hours, a new 30-hour “standard” could enable the woman to take on more paid employment, opening up opportunities outside the home and potentially narrowing the pay gap between herself and her partner.”

Could this be the idea that finally engineers the gender divide away and frees women from the major responsibility for unpaid caring for children and elders?

“Nowadays women are expected to go out to work and bring home a wage, but they must do so in ways that interfere as little as possible with, first, caring for children and, later, caring for ailing parents – and often both at once.”

Would shorter hours mean less pay? The authors say people should not have to work long hours just to get by. At the core of western economies is a culture of over-consumption that encourages longer working hours just to keep up. Besides kicking the economy’s growth-addiction, they suggest a combination of minimum wage laws, productivity and education should be designed to improve pay available even from a 21-hour week.

Life would likely change for the better for human relationships and – due to a lot less consumption – for the planet too.

It’s not such a radical measure, it’s at the very least a welcome questioning of our slavish devotion to economic success and over-consumption at the cost of family time and the depletion of natural resources.