What could society look like if we were working less and living more? Red Pepper rekindles the shorter working week debate.

I have only recently started subscribing to Red Pepper, which describes itself thus: “Red Pepper is a bi-monthly magazine and website of left politics and culture. We’re a socialist publication drawing on feminist, green and libertarian politics. We seek to be a space for debate on the left, a resource for movements for social justice, and a home for anyone who wants to see a world based on equality, meaningful democracy and freedom.”It is therefore, in many ways, what Green World magazine should be, but isn’t.

The blog is pretty good too, and it is there that I found one of my pet subjects getting an airing under the heading “What would a shorter working week mean for us?

I urge you to read it. http://www.redpepper.org.uk/what-would-a-shorter-working-week-mean-for-us/

It got me reflecting on the WORK chapter of my book, written a few years ago now – just before I took the plunge and joined the Green Party, so I have copied a couple of extracts below:


We work too hard, and for what? To perpetuate the cycle of consumer driven economic growth, if I am not mistaken. We are indoctrinated to believe that this is the only worthwhile measure of that collective goal we call progress. I refute every strand of this.

My own personal progress, in escaping the shackles of a twenty year teaching career, has involved a 50% drop in my gross income; c.90% drop in my disposable income, a massive drop in my productivity (however you care to measure that). Okay, it may not be a manifesto that will win many votes, but I seriously think we need to address our priorities. Indefinite economic growth is a patent absurdity. We cannot keep expecting more and more. Only the Green Party seems to have accepted this truth. Quality of life has to be a saner goal than economic growth.

A recent report by Nuffield Health suggested that the average Brit is too lazy to run for a bus or have sex! They suggest we need to join private health facilities to monitor our health more rigorously. They also suggest that we counteract our idleness and invigorate ourselves by joining a health club. They suggest that businesses should buy in such services for their employees, as healthier employees are more productive employees. And guess what? Thats right! Nuffield Health own private hospitals and recently procured a chain of health clubs. And naturally, they can provide attractive corporate rates for their on-site fitness services. Isnt that just dandy?

I have been there, done that and bought the tee shirt. I tried joining the local gym/health club and went every morning before work for more than six months. It was great. I arrived in work each morning much more alert and energetic. I was undoubtedly more productive. However, by 8.00pm every evening I was falling asleep while I flicked and ticked my way through the superficial marking of the 300 exercise books I was supposed to mark every week. My kids suffered. My wife suffered. Our sex life suffered. For fucks sake, who was benefiting? I had to re-address my priorities.

I have no idea who funded the Nuffield Health survey and report, but here is the pretty obvious truth of the matter. We dont run for buses or have sex because we are knackered. We cant be bothered because we are tired from overwork. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, so the proverb goes. It is a proverb that apparently first appears in James Howells Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish, published in 1659 – so it is hardly a recent notion but is perhaps best known for its appearance in the 1980 film The Shining. Jack Nicholsons characters descent into insanity is shown by his production of hundreds of sheets of typewritten paper covered in nothing but this proverb. Ignoring it IS insanity.

If you want this line of thinking propounded by a weightier mind than mine, look no further than my fellow humanist, Bertrand Russell. Back in 1935 he wrote: A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work[1]

Surprise, surprise, as with most beliefs designed to subjugate us, hard work is not a virtue propounded by reason, but it is a virtue promoted by vested economic interests with the help of puritanical religious groups (although often they are one and the same people). This was certainly the case in Dickensian Britain as Jerusalem[2] was builded here, with those dark satanic mills!

I am not denying for a moment the satisfaction and reward that hard work can bring. I also acknowledge that the more you put into something, the more you get out of it, but this pre-supposes that you have a choice about what you put into something. The problem with the capitalist systems of production that have come to dominate since the agrarian/industrial revolutions is that the workers become just one of the inputs in the production line. There is no craft or skill to hone. There is no scope for creativity. The worker costs £x per hour in much the same way as energy bills accumulate. They are just cogs in the machinery. Consistent efficiency is all that is needed.

Profitability becomes the definition of success. Good managers seek to minimise costs and optimise productivity. In terms of workers this translates to get the most out of them and pay them as little as possible. So much for philanthropy[3]. From the workers perspective, in the absence of any personal benefit from working harder, it becomes a case of getting away with doing as little as possible without jeopardising your pay cheque. No wonder mechanisation at the expense of workers is seen as such a desirable goal from managements perspective. Machines dont get Bolshie!

I guess most people would associate this recipe for poor industrial relations with the era of militant trade unions in the sixties and seventies. It may have been high profile and highly organised at that time, but I have to say that I have seen it pretty much everywhere I have worked schools, shops, factories, banks. As an employee myself, I have worked hard if I felt in the mood, but have done as little as I could get away with if I wasnt in the mood. Neither scenario made me feel particularly good or particularly bad. This would necessitate caring.


I believe that there needs to be a blending of the wholehearted commitment to quality that we see in Japan, with an appreciation that a good measure of idleness is good and healthy too.

The answer has to be Edward Heaths greatest achievement the three-day working week[1]. Imagine four days off every week. Imagine unemployment eliminated at a stroke. The need for additional workers will benefit the elderly that want to work on and encourage many more people who choose to be economically inactive into the workforce. Okay, you also have to imagine a 40% drop in earnings across the board too, but that means counter-inflationary pressure.

Realistically, a four-day week is far more practicable in the first instance. It would be a step along the road of reducing working hours that goes back a long way. The concept of working hours does not really apply to subsistence economies. People would have worked as and when necessary, and as and when nature dictated, to meet their needs. Academic opinion varies as to whether this meant working from dawn until dusk, or whether they only had to work sporadically and far fewer hours than we tend to. If you compare it to the lives of hunters and gatherers among the animal kingdom, the latter is probably the more likely.

Things started changing drastically with the invention of money, and with religion also having an input. Throughout the Abrahamic world, the working week through much of history was six days of labour and one day of rest (the Sabbath). Hours became more regimented with the Industrial Revolution. Labour started to be seen as just another input in the system of production. Working days of 14 to 16 hours, six days a week, were commonplace, for men, women and children.

From the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, it was clear to some that people were now being used to produce all manner of things that we never had before. This was what could be called progress, but progress for whom exactly? Benjamin Franklin[2] recognised the realities way back in 1784, in a letter to a friend:

What occasions then so much want and misery? It is the employment of men and women in works that produce neither the necessaries nor conveniences of lifeCould all these people, now employed in raising, making, or carrying superfluities, be subsisted in raising necessaries? I think they mightIt has been computed by some political arithmetician that if every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labour would procure all the necessaries and comforts of life, want and misery would be banished out of the world, and the rest of the 24 hours might be leisure and pleasure.

He scribed these words of wisdom more than two and a quarter centuries ago. It is truer now than ever. We do not need tacky plastic toys, blue slush puppies, overpaid footballers or telemarketing. We need healthy food, nurses and teachers and green technologies. But no one listened in 1784, and few people are listening today.

It took the development of collective bargaining and trade unionism to see any change to the culture of excessive hours. The initial benchmark achieved by unionists was usually ten hours a day, six days a week. By 1900, USA and British workers in unions were winning the fight for an eight-hour day. The five-day week wasnt widely achieved until the 1920s. The resultant 40-hour week has stood as the norm in North America and Europe until very recently. The 40-hour week now contains concessions for lunch and other breaks meaning that the norm is now more like six and a half hours work in an eight-hour shift 32½ hours work a week.

The next significant progressive step has surely got to be the 4-day week (if not the 3-day week just yet) and support is beginning to grow. For example, it is part of New Scientists blueprint for a better world[3]. They believe that a four-day week could boost employment, save energy and make us happier.

They put forward two versions of a four-day week to choose from. Plan A would involve switching from the 5X8=40 hour week to a 4X10=40 hour week. It is suggested that this would be particularly successful in office environments, where closing buildings for an extra day every week would save up to 20% off energy bills. A pilot scheme in Utah, it is reported, has seen 13% savings in energy consumption, high employee satisfaction ratings and significantly fewer days off sick.

Plan B is to go from 5X8=40 hours to 4X8=32 hours, with a consequent 20% pay cut. As the recession hit in 2009, numerous firms started offering this option to employees as a way of avoiding job losses. The accountancy giant KPMG offered it to their employees in the UK in February 2009. About 85% applied to take it up! It may not appeal to all, but a survey of more than 150 firms that have implemented either Plan A or Plan B found that 64% believe it has improved morale, 41% report increased productivity. Only 9% reported adverse consequences for their business. It was the Great Depression of the 1920s that saw the big step from a six day week to the five day week. I believe the time is right to take the next big stride forward.

The biggest obstacle is in finding a strong, organised group to actively promote these shorter week proposals. Part of Margaret Thatchers legacy is emasculated trade unions. Shareholders in business see it as a risk to their dividends. Government is unlikely to run with it as it could hit tax revenues needed to service the absurd debts we have run up to pay for wars we shouldnt be fighting. They havent worked out how to tax leisure Time yet.

It ought to be in the manifestoes of the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and the Greens, but I have not seen any sign of it there yet. The Green Party does at least acknowledge the principles[4].

It is an idea whose time will surely come, sooner rather than later.

Part One footnotes

[1] In Praise of Idleness, an essay by Bertrand Russell

[2] Billy Bragg cites Jerusalem as a great socialist hymn, and if you study the words you can see his point.

[3] The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, first published in 1914, is worth a read to see just how little attitudes have changed in this field.

Part Two footnotes

[1] Ted Heath wasn’t, of course, a liberal pioneer. His three day week in the early months of 1974 was a desperate measure to stave off power cuts as a result of miners’ strikes during a winter of discontent.

[2] See this great book about, in my opinion, the greatest ever American: The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands.

[3] NewScientist, 15/09/2009. Article by David Cohen entitled ‘Take Friday off … forever’.

[4] Green Party policy website: http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/mfss/mwr.html

Workers’ Rights & Employment WR340.

Extracts from ‘The Asylum of the Universe’ by Andy Chyba (available here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/AsylumoftheUniverse)

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