The 40-hour work week is an ingrained part of our culture, but it does very little to enrich our lives. Lucy Purdy explores alternative working models that do away with the idea of the nine-to-five
Time is perhaps the most precious commodity of all. While we can buy more possessions and work new jobs, we can never make more time or recapture what has already been spent. But considering how much work dominates our lives, we question concepts around working and time relatively little.
While paid employment can provide security, for many, jobs are a means of putting “food on the table” within a work culture that feels more enslaving than natural or joyful. But now there is growing recognition that traditional working patterns no longer serve us. More and more people are searching for freedom from bosses, wages, commuting and consuming, seeking instead the lives we truly want to lead.
Today’s working model stems largely from the Industrial Revolution, whose architects convinced the masses of the importance of disciplined hard work. Rising early to toil all day for others was considered a virtue and this began to form part of the national consciousness. Families started to rely on their wages alone, buying in the food they had previously grown themselves, and work which was governed by the seasons, weather and necessity was replaced with standardised employment. The shift didn’t go unnoticed – poet William Blake was among those criticising the “cogs tyrannic” – but it established a narrow blueprint for a “dutiful citizen” which is largely still accepted today.
While capitalism was supposed to save society from having to labour as much, we have never worked more.
But now people are speaking out anew. The gift and sharing economies have grown in response to a system which means many people feel they’re unable to give what they want because “there’s no money in it”. While corporations have long used our money, skills, lives and arguably even relationships and health to build their businesses, many people are now seeking alternative routes toward financially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually rewarding lives.
“More and more people are searching for freedom from bosses, wages, commuting and consuming, seeking instead the lives we truly want to lead.”
Institutions are experimenting with change, too. The city council in the Swedish city of Gothenburg has trialled a programme of six-hour working days, hoping the move could create a healthier and happier workforce. In Japan – where a culture of overwork is particularly ingrained – the government is considering making it a legal requirement for workers to take more days of paid holiday each year.
And in the UK, a YouGov survey last year found that 57 percent of workers would support a four-day week, something championed by the New Economics Foundation. It says a ‘normal’ 40-hour week is neither natural nor inevitable and insists a shorter, more flexible working week would be good for people, the environment and the economy too.
At the same time, the size of the self-employed workforce in the UK has soared. Self-employed people now account for a record 15 percent of the workforce, totalling more than 4.6m people. While some argue this shift stems from people being unable to find full-time jobs, other surveys suggest people have deliberately chosen this route.
If our needs are to play, love, create and to connect with others and with nature, there seems to be a renewed effort to ask how we can nurture them. How could we better devote our energy and time to the areas of life that work – and money – cannot reach?
As William Morris and Bertrand Russell agreed, there are two types of work. One is unpleasant and done solely for money. And the other is creative and feeds our souls. But it is perhaps not the nature of the work, but more the conditions under which it is done, that really matter. The lawyer might well enjoy digging his garden at the weekend. But for an underpaid immigrant working twelve hours a day in the rain, doing the same work, digging, for a gang master, might be seen as unpleasant in the extreme. In the same way, I might enjoy mucking out a stable if I have chosen to do it, and if I own the stable. If I am forced to muck out a stable by an authority, I am very unlikely to enjoy it, even though it is exactly the same job.
This means that work is good if we voluntarily choose to do it. Therefore we all need to consider whether we need to quit our job and get a different one, or quit our job and create our own work life as a self-employed person. If, for whatever reason, this option is simply not practicable, then we ought to make better use of our leisure time. Instead of indulging in television or shopping, we should reclaim our leisure time for creative or useful or intellectually fulfilling pursuits, such as gardening, brewing beer or reading a book. On an individual level, and as a society, we need to reduce the time spent doing unpleasant work under coercion, and increase the time doing voluntary, fun work, or to put it another way: playing.”
More information: www.idler.co.uk
We can ask provocative questions that call attention to the systemic functions of wage labour. For example: why must we work to “earn a living”? Why should paid jobs be the main means by which income is distributed, and by which most people gain access to necessities like food and shelter? And why – in the US at least – is health insurance tied to paid employment?
‘Earning a living’ has come to seem inevitable to many people, but there are other ways to live. We could start by giving everyone an unconditional basic income.
So many people hate their jobs, and only endure them so they can put a roof over their head and food on the table. This is not the way we are meant to live! But our coercive system of enforced scarcity ensures that wage labour is the only way most of us can meet our fundamental survival needs.
Most of us want to be useful and do work that uses our gifts, but the system we have now makes that difficult, if not impossible. Certainly there’s no shortage of work that needs to be done, but a lot of it is unpaid, and there aren’t enough paid jobs to go around even in the best-case scenario. So why try to shoehorn everyone into paid jobs? An unconditional basic income could free us up to do necessary work – and enjoy greater leisure time too – without anxiety about paying for our basic necessities.
More information: www.whywork.org
Sarah Lyall, researcher in the Social Policy team at the New Economics Foundation
“Moving to shorter hours would challenge the prevailing assumption that the main purpose of life is to work more to earn more to buy more.”
Fewer hours of paid work per person is a guaranteed route to a better, balanced and inclusive labour market in the context of little or no economic growth. Today, the official norm is between 37.5 and 40 hours. No-one is supposed to work more than 48 hours a week, but there are plenty of exceptions to this rule and many opt out and work longer. One in five works more than 45 hours a week. Our proposal is for a new norm of 30 hours, moving over a longer period towards a working week of 21 hours.
Moving to fewer hours would challenge the prevailing assumption that the main purpose of life is to work more to earn more to buy more. It would give us more time to participate in local activities, enjoy our families and friendships, and cultivate creative pursuits. It would reduce the amount of resource-intensive consumption associated with being busy and time-poor, such as processed ready-meals, flying instead of taking the train and travelling by car rather than walking, cycling or taking public transport.
There is no evidence that fewer hours are bad for a country’s economic performance as measured by GDP. Indeed, many countries with fewer than average working hours have stronger than average economies. Our research has consistently found that workers on fewer hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour, while workers who are better able to balance paid employment with unpaid responsibilities have higher wellbeing and constitute a more loyal, stable and committed workforce.
More information: www.neweconomics.org
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Rather than the ‘concept’ of work needing to be redefined, we would do better to address the ongoing lack of flexible-working and family-friendly workplaces.
Too often, we hear about parents who feel under pressure to pretend they’ve no interest at all in starting a family – right up to the point that they have their three-month scan. Rather than perpetuating a situation in which workers feel they have to conceal this side of themselves, we’d like to see companies acknowledge the absolute centrality of family to their employees’ lives. A culture in which anyone feels able to discuss their work-life balance with their boss, without fear of losing their job or missing out on a promotion, would increase employee loyalty and job satisfaction no end, and yield rich rewards for everyone.
Whenever we ask Mumsnet users how employers could do better, we always get the same answer: flexibility. More than a third of Mumsnet and Gransnet staff work part-time, or from home at least one day a week. Mobile technology is also making flexible working more possible than ever. Ideally the concept of ‘office hours’ will become increasingly obsolete and, as everyone’s working hours deregulate, mothers who work outside the home and require flexible hours to balance work and family will become less conspicuous; the relative importance of ability over ability-to-stay-in-the-office-after-5pm will increase.
All the evidence suggests that flexible working increases productivity and helps with staff retention. Companies who take the leap are rewarded with dedicated, hard-working and loyal staff.
More information: www.mumsnet.com
If you’re feeling overworked, financially stressed and depressed about the state of the planet, I have some good news for you. Looking at the world through different lenses can help you become a little kinder towards yourself and the rest of humanity.
The new lenses require us to step back and look at our economic system. Through globalisation – the deregulation of trade and finance – governments on both the left and right have supported huge banks and corporations at the expense of our jobs and financial security. As a result, most of us are working longer and longer hours to feed our families and keep a roof over our heads. At the same time, we’re bombarded by contradictory messages that tell us that we’re to blame for climate chaos and the extinction of species – while simultaneously urging us to consume more and more in order to create jobs and ‘grow the economy’.
There is a way out. The worldwide localisation movement supports an economic shift that slows down the ‘work and spend’ treadmill, uses fewer resources, and reduces CO2 emissions and other pollution. So far, the most successful demonstrations centre on food – farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, edible schoolyards, urban gardens and more. From the USA and China to the UK and South Africa, these initiatives are bringing health back to our soil, our communities and our economies, while creating jobs that provide real meaning and connection. At the same time, local business alliances and local finance are revitalising economic relationships in other sectors of the economy, making them more accountable and responsible to nature and community.
Localisation bridges the artificial divide between healing people and the planet, between the personal and the political: it’s the economics of happiness.
More information: www.localfutures.org
Social media debate
There will never be enough paying jobs, “full employment” is meaningless to strive for. We should aim higher than working our lives away.
— Vintervittra (@IsVittra) March 22, 2015
Let’s stop talking about work-life balance and start talking about all life balance.
— Kyle Wild (@dorkitude) March 15, 2015
If we were living in harmony with the seasons, most of us would not be working the same hours in winter. In fact, we’d be resting. — Paul Wyrd (@PaulWyrd) January 19, 2015
Exhaustion is not a status symbol or a badge of honor. Stop the glorification of busy and learn to nurture your soul.
— Amanda Gates (@theamandagates) May 9, 2014
Idler News | Google boss escapes corporate life and hits the road. Tires of “non-stop work” http://t.co/KCfBt3KjNQ
— The Idler Academy (@idleracademy) March 14, 2015
Photo credit: © Mike McCune