Saturday, 24 May 2014

The 21-hour week: 'The British have solved unemployment'

The subject of over-work has been keeping many commentators busy:
Futures Forum: "A shorter working week would make us healthier, give us more fulfilling and sustainable lives and be better for the environment..."
This column will change your life: stop being busy | Life and style | The Guardian

This comment is from a couple of days ago - and summarises many of the arguments:

The British have solved unemployment, 

once and for all

Marketplace Morning Report broadcasts all week from London.
I am anchoring Marketplace Morning Report from London this week. While on the road, I am scouting for big ideas and I may have found a doozy.
Some iconoclastic economic thinkers just over the river in the Vauxhall area of London have constructed a device that wipes out unemployment.
Roll this baby out into the economy and everyone who wants to have a job would get a job. If it works as promised, not just Britain but the rest of the developed world including the U.S., could have full employment.
Outsourcing of jobs to poorer parts of the world? No problem. Robots and algorithms taking away human jobs, not to worry. And what is this device that would solve what is one of the greatest and most persistent economic problems?
Well, it is not a device in the sense of an electronic contraption. But it is a mechanism, a policy mechanism that is being put forth by experts at the New Economics Foundation here in London, among others. The idea is quite simple (although implementation will be tougher; I'll get to that in a moment).
Here is the idea: the 21-hour work week.
The NEF's proposal allows people to choose to work fewer hours. For the purposes of my discussion, let's do it by official decree: the order comes down that people can only work about half the hours they work now. That means it would take two people to do what is now one job. I do six shows a day as we roll through the time zones, including our ever-popular podcast.
With a 21-hour work week, I might do three of them a day and leave early. That means we could hire one more anchorman. Two people have jobs instead of one. Sure, the boss might try to cut my pay nearly in half, but if every working woman and working man was being paid less, prices should eventually drift downward to compensate.
Think of the benefits. If I were only working 21 hours in a week, I would have more time to do volunteer work, write a book, read a book, ride my bicycle, clean the basement -- more time to be a more balanced human being.
Yet, what might employers say about this 21-hour work week device to rid the developed world of unemployment once and for all? They generally don't like the idea much. You see, if there are two people doing the work of one -- that means two health care plans, two company pensions -- which could be a huge expense.
This suggests the 21-hour work week is more likely to come first to countries (like those in Europe) that have universal health care.
Another criticism that comes to mind about chopping the work week down the middle in order to produce full employment? Possible effects on income inequality. People who live off their wages and salaries as their hours are cut would find their incomes dropping (and their free time rising). People who live off their assets, their investments, might not see the same kind of decline in income. This might widen the gap between the richest and everyone else.
It is not just the New Economics Foundation here in London pushing a voluntary version of this. Up the road in Scotland, a policy group called the Jimmy Reid Foundation is trying to make the case for Scots working few hours. And, with all due respect to our UK hosts this week, the idea has a tradition in the U.S. as well. Not a glorious tradition, but a tradition. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt apparently put a stop to a bid to cap the American work week at 33 hours.
Even with the mass unemployment of the Great Depression, shorter work weeks were seen as just too radical a notion.
The British have solved unemployment, once and for all | Marketplace.org

With an excellent article last month in the Independent, from Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler:

Campaigners call for 30-hour working week to allow for healthier, fairer society - and more time for fun

Bring it on, says Tom Hodgkinson, editor of 'The Idler'

TOM HODGKINSON  Thursday 24 April 2014

Back in the 1930s, economists, intellectuals and trade union leaders were united in the belief that a shorter working day was fast approaching. The machines would shoulder more and more of the toil, they believed, leaving lots of time off for workers.

A three- or four-day week would be ample to procure the necessities of life. The increase in leisure would be spent pursuing healthy recreations such as philosophy, dancing, sewing, cooking and wandering through the woods collecting mushrooms. This was the view of John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in 1930 that by 2030 all economic problems would have been solved and the only issue left to deal with would be how to enjoy doing nothing without having a nervous breakdown.

He was, perhaps surprisingly, an opponent of the work ethic. “We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” he wrote in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, predicting that in 100 years’ time, “We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.”

Campaigners call for 30-hour working week to allow for healthier, fairer society - and more time for fun - UK Politics - UK - The Independent

It's really quite a hot subject:

The case for a shorter working week

On 5 May 2014 the BBC reported on a study from researchers at the University of Leeds that suggested the UK economy could benefit from fewer working hours. The report discusses the findings that say having more time to relax means people are more productive. It is something that some business groups have disputed.
On 21 April 2014, Professor of Economics and Political Economy, David Spencer, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s World at One news programme. His interview begins 26 minutes into the programme.

Professor Spencer put forward the case for creating a short working week. He argued the economic advantages, where evidence suggests that productivity can be increased with shorter working hours. He also spoke about the social advantages of being able to spend more time with families, the personal gains to health and the environmental benefits of working less.

Using the Netherlands as an example, Professor Spencer showcased the nation as a success story. He argued that they have comparable living standards to the UK, but work shorter hours through work sharing, and doing part time hours. Professor Spencer also used Kellogg’s as an example, saying that their experiment with a 28 hour working week had resulted in increased productivity.

Professor Spencer stressed that people in the UK are working long hours through necessity, not choice. He argued that he is supporting the development of legislation to give people more choices for flexible working.

Listen again to the interview on BBC Radio until Monday 28 April 2014 

Read Professor Spencer’s blog on the case for a shorter working week at The Conversation
The case for a shorter working week - News & Events - Leeds University Business School

There's been quite a debate going on in France about the right work-life balance:
'Mais, non!' French frustration at 'after hours' work emails translates into union agreement. How has it come about and could it work here? - Lexology
What the French E-mail Meme Reveals About America’s Runaway Culture of Work | The Nation

There is a long tradition in campaigning for shorter working hours:

Peter Kropotkin: 1892

When we take into account how many, in the so-called civilized nations, produce nothing, how many work at harmful trades, doomed to disappear, and lastly, how many are only useless middlemen, we see that in each nation the number of real producers could be doubled. And if, instead of every 10 men, 20 were occupied in producing useful commodities, and if society took the trouble to economize human energy, those 20 people would only have to work 5 hours a day without production decreasing.

The Conquest of Bread: Chapter 8 Ways and Means
The Conquest of Bread - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Center for a Stateless Society » The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy

But during the 1930s Depression, the idea gained mainstream currency:

Kellogg's Six-Hour Day

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

"Do we live to work or work to live? The question of how important work is in our lives is central to Hunnicutt's study of Kellogg's daring social experiment, which began in 1930 and lasted until 1985.... [I]t could serve as a wake up call for a nation in big trouble if the jobless future comes to pass."
—Publishers Weekly

On December 1, 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, W.K. Kellogg replaced the traditional three daily eight-hour shifts in his cereal plant with four six-hour shifts. By adding on a new shift he and his managers created jobs for employees that the company had laid off and for other unemployed persons in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Kellogg's six-hour day was the pinnacle of a hundred-year process that cut working time virtually in half. Kellogg Management, propelled by a vision of Liberation Capitalism, insisted that six hours would revolutionize society by shifting the balance of time from work to leisure--from economic concerns to the challenge of freedom.

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt: Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day

In 1930, the Kellogg Company announced that most of its factories would shift towards 30 hour work weeks, from the usual 40. W.K. Kellogg stated that he did this so that an additional shift of workers would be employed in an effort to support people through the depression era. This practice remained until World War II, and continued briefly after the war, although some departments and factories remained locked into 30 hour work weeks until 1980.

Kellogg's - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As Benjamin Hunnicutt explains in his book Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, Brown and Kellogg wanted to do more than save jobs. They hoped to show that the “free exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to mean mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and natural resources.” Instead “workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence—the pursuit of happiness.”

To be sure, Kellogg did not intend to stop making a profit. But the company leaders argued that men and women would work more efficiently on shorter shifts, and with more people employed, the overall purchasing power of the community would increase, thus allowing for more purchases of goods, including cereals.

The Gospel of Consumption | Jeffrey Kaplan | Orion Magazine

To finish, a couple of very insightful, more recent pieces:
What happened to the six-hour workday? - The Week
The Oil Drum | The Four Day Work Week: Sixteen Reasons Why This Might Be an Idea Whose Time Has Come

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