GREEN BIZ: WORK LESS TO LIVE MORE
Think slow food, but for your whole life
In the last century, public opinion has shifted from deeming a 40-hour workweek scandalously short to hailing it as a triumph of modern labor. Now, with a faltering global economy and human population projections creeping toward 10 billion by 2050, some researchers are calling for a change that might be considered blasphemous: a 20- to 30-hour full-time workweek.
Resistance is inevitable, but as history shows, so is change. Reducing individual workloads and distributing the hours among more people could increase personal well-being, temper climate disruption, and foster a stable, equitable world economy, according to the New Economics Foundation in London and the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.
“There’s no such thing as sustainable growth, not in a country like the U.S.,” Worldwatch senior fellow Erik Assadourian says. “We have to de-grow our economy, which is obviously not a popular stance to take in a culture that celebrates growth in all forms. But as the saying goes, if everyone consumed like Americans, we’d need four planets.”
Whether you move to a smaller house or an apartment, downsize to one or no car, or simply have fewer lattes to-go, a smaller paycheck could reduce consumption overall.
“If we had a livable wage and could each work a 20-hour week,” Assadourian says, “we’d have time to choose more sustainable options that are also better for ourselves.”
Maybe we’d even like it. We could cook dinner instead of unwrapping and microwaving it, Assadourian suggests, or hang laundry to dry, which would cut electricity use and let us spend time in the sun.
Anna Coote, head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation, argues that we should work less and use that time whittling away at a more joyful life. “Why do we work? What do we do with the money we earn?” she asks. “Can we begin to think differently about how much we need—to get out of the fast lane and live life at a more sustainable pace, to do things that are better for the planet, better for ourselves?”
Shorter workweeks could mean more time for psychologically gratifying pursuits such as gardening, reading, or biking.
Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of choosing to become enlightened minimalists. We’ll likely need at least a higher minimum wage, healthcare that’s not dependent on a 40-hour work week, and a more progressive income tax, Assadourian says.
“We know that when an economy isn’t growing, you tend to get a fallout of higher unemployment,” Coote says. “So you have to spread the work around more evenly.”
The foundation’s 2013 book Time on Our Side: Why We All Need a Shorter Working Week, coedited by Coote, explores how to transition to a 30-hour-or-less workweek, from starting young people in the workforce at fewer hours to shaving an hour a week off of older workers’ schedules each year.
Coote says the concept could also benefit employers. Having more than one employee be adept at a task buffers an organization from the effects of people getting sick or quitting. Increased personal time also makes for chipper, more productive employees.