Wednesday, January 25, 2012

cut the working week

The workers' Mayday originated in the fight for the 40 hour week 5 day week and was finally achieved (more often honoured in the breach as in reality) in the US in 1938. Fifty years ago the American Federation of Labor called for a 30-hour work week (the U.S. Senate even passed a 30-hour law, though it was defeated in the House); in 1961 the head of the New York Central Labor Council urged unions to campaign for a 4-hour day. For decades the radical union the Industrial Workers of the World have had the demand for the 20 hour week - "4 hours work for 8 hours pay puts more workers on the job every day" but today the mainstream unions won't campaign even for a 35-hour week.

Now the New Economics Foundation have re-newed the call for a drastic cut in working hours. In a recent paper they argue for a 21-hour work week. The NEF says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a "normal" 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and mostly just relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral). The NEF argues we need to achieve truly happy lives, we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock ticking in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to feeding consumerism).

To save the world by laying the foundations for a "steady-state" economy -- and to just make our personal lives better -- we will need to work less.

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