The case for working less

The case for working less

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The focus of conventional employment policy is on creating ‘more work’. People without work and in receipt of benefits are viewed as a drain on the state and in need of assistance or direct coercion to get them into work. There is the belief that work is the best form of welfare and that those who are able to work ought to work.   

This particular focus on work has come at the expense of another, far more radical policy goal, that of creating ‘less work’. Yet, as I will argue below, the pursuit of less work could provide a route to a better standard of life, including a better quality of work life.

The idea that society might work less in order to enjoy life more goes against standard thinking that celebrates the virtue and discipline of hard work. Dedication to work, so the argument goes, is the best route to prosperity. There is also the idea that work offers the opportunity for self-realisation, adding to any material benefits from work. ‘Do what you love’ in work, we are told, and success will follow.

But ideologies such as the above are based on a myth that work can always set us free and provide us with the basis for a good life. As I have written elsewhere, this mythologizing about work fails to confront – indeed it actively conceals – the acute hardships of much work performed in modern society. For many, work is about doing ‘what you hate’.

Here I want to address another issue that is overlooked in conventional policy debates. This is the need to diminish work. Working less presents several advantages. One is the opportunity to overcome the anomaly of overwork for some and unemployment for others. Sharing out work more evenly across the available population by reducing average working time would enable those who work too much to work less and those do not work at all to partake in some work. Another advantage is the opportunity to enhance the quality of work by reducing drudgery and extending opportunities for creative active in work. Reducing work time, in this sense, can be as much about realising the intrinsic rewards of work as reducing its burdensome qualities.   

Economists may cry foul that a reduction in working time will add to firm costs and lead to job losses (mainstream economics accuses advocates of shorter work hours of succumbing to the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ and of failing to see the extra costs of hiring additional workers on shorter hours contracts). One retort to this is that longer work hours are not that productive. Shorter work hours may actually be more productive if they increase the morale and motivation of workers. In practice, we could achieve the same standard of living with fewer hours of work.

But the more profound question is whether we should be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero work hours for others. Surely society can achieve a more equitable allocation of work that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want? A reduction in work time, it can be argued here, would offer a route to such an allocation.  

There is also the deeper issue of whether we should be measuring the value of our lives by what we produce. The cult of productivity crowds out other more ‘leisurely’ ways of living that can add to human well-being. Challenging this cult and seeking ways to lighten the burden of work could allow us all to live better lives inside and outside of work.

Arguments for shorter work time have a long history. Keynes, for example, gave support to a reduction in working time as a way of achieving full employment. In a letter to the poet TS Eliot in 1945, Keynes suggested that ‘less work’ represented the ‘ultimate solution’ to unemployment. Keynes also saw merit in using productivity gains to reduce work time and famously looked forward to a time (around 2030) when people would be required to work 15 hours a week. Working less was a part of Keynes’s vision of a ‘good society’.

Marx, from a radically different perspective, saw a reduction in working time as an essential ingredient of a future communist society. Work was part of the ‘realm of necessity’ and via the use of technology it could be curtailed as a way to expand the ‘realm of freedom’ in which people could realise their creative capacities in activities of their own choosing. Marx importantly thought that under communism work in the ‘realm of necessity’ could be fulfilling as it would elicit and harness the creativity of workers. Whatever irksome work remained in the realm of necessity under communism again could be lessened by the harnessing of technology.      

Yet another advocate of shorter work time was J.S. Mill. He dismissed the ‘gospel of work’ proposed by Thomas Carlyle in part because it drew a veil over the real costs of work, including slave work that Carlyle sought to defend. Instead, Mill advocated a ‘gospel of leisure’, arguing that technology should be used to curtail work time as far as possible. This stress on technology as a means to shorten work time was later to feature in Bert­rand Russell’s 1932 essay, ‘In Praise of Idleness.

The essential ideas of the above writers resonate still today. They cut through romantic views of work and show how human progress depends on society performing less not more work. Although developed in radically different ways, their ideas point to a future where the burden of work is lighter and more time is available for free creative activity. At least in the case of Marx, there is still the prospect of turning work into a fulfilling activity, but the latter objective is seen as achievable only within the context of a situation in which work time is reduced. Less work is seen as a necessary foundation for better work.  

Ultimately, the reduction in working time is about creating more opportunities for people to realise their potential in all manner activities including within the work sphere. Working less, in short, is about allowing us to live more. Let’s work to achieve it.


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The problem with working less is that most people will choose to work longer hours so that they can achieve their financial goals more quickly. There is no force that encourages people to work fewer hours.

In fact the cost of everything in society is intrinsically tied up with what we earn. And that is tied to how many hours we work. If it were practical to do so, we would all be working longer hours not fewer hours. There is an 'arms race' of sorts in the labour market for people to obtain as much money as possible so that they can achieve a good quality of life, have security and count themselves successful.

The arms race is self defeating eventually because the price of a house is measured by how much money we all have. If we worked half as much, we would have half as much, but so would everyone else, and the house we buy would cost half as much.

The need to actually work to produce the necessities of society has become obsolete.

We are hamsters in the wheel.

If you have read 1984 by George Orwell, do you ever wonder if we have arrived in a distopia without even realising it?

In Haiti, they say, "If work was all that great, the rich would have stole it all a long time ago."

We should be talking much more about this and the underlying myths about hard work and ideologies of ever more economic growth. My own guess is that only 10% of existing work is necessary to build what we need and very few are benefiting from the massive increases in productivity. We are failing to create the right discourse.

Good post. I'm surprised, though, that you don't mention Marx's son in law Paul Lafargue and his essay "The Right to be Lazy." Also the Italian Autonomia movement in the '70s and its slogan "Refuse Work," John DeGraff's Take Back Your Time, as well as Buddhist idea of "right livelihood." EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. You have a lot of allies.

The one thing I don't understand is why you refer to "romantic ideas of work." The German Romantics from Schiller through Nietzsche were in no way supporters of the Calvinist work ethic nor would the "do what you love" naiveté have appealed to them. Socialism and the so-called "humanist" Marx are unthinkable without the Romantics. See Schiller's "The Aesthetic Education of Man." I try to show how Schiller invented what we would later call the dialectic in my recent book The Science Delusion. Marxist humanism should really be called Marxist Romanticism.

@Sanjay Mittal, excellent point and similarly we should not have low interest rates because they could lead to rapid inflation.... in an expansionary economic cycle.

We are not near NAIRU. A modest reduction of the US workweek to 35 hours would offset the gains in productivity (that must reduce employment) all things being equal. We have a decoupling between the cost of goods and economic activity, if you do not believe in the productivity gains of technology, then to what do you attribute this historic trend?

Let's pretend that technology continues apace for the next 50 years. Do you honestly believe that we will still have as many laborers and skilled workers? It may have seemed absurd that clerical workers in the far-off world of 2014 would be in decline given the vast increase in business activity, from a 1964 pov, but here we are. So too the engineers, welders, salespeople, and accountants of the far-off world of 2064.

You can discount technology's contribution to productivity gains if it suits your own personal paradigm in your personal journalings, but this is public and you may want to reassess your "candor".

I’m disappointed to see David Spence trotting out the old “lump of labour” fallacy: the idea that if the working week is shortened, that leaves work undone which can be done by the unemployed. DS falls for the lump of labour fallacy when he says “Sharing out work more evenly across the available population by reducing average working time would enable those who work too much to work less and those do not work at all to partake in some work."

The flaw in that idea has been set out a thousand times before in the literature, but I’ll set it out yet again.

The only constraint on raising employment is inflation. And inflation rears its ugly head at relatively low unemployment levels: that’s when employers find difficulty locating the types of labour they want, skilled labour in particular. (To be exact, it’s demand pull inflation that rears its ugly head: cost push inflation is possible at any time.)

The level of unemployment at which demand pull inflation becomes too much is known to economists as NAIRU (though other acronyms exist).

Now suppose an economy is at NAIRU, and the working week is shortened, does that make it any easier for employers to find the skilled labour they want? Well it doesn’t make one iota easier!!

Put another way, if NAIRU is X% when there are no restrictions on how many hours people can work, it will still be X% when the working week is compulsorily shortened (or for that matter if people VOLUNTARILY work fewer hours).

And sure as night follows day I’ll be explaining that to someone else in a few months’ time.

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