Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

A 21-hour week?

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The new economics foundation’s latest report, published on Saturday, seeks to argue the case for why shorter working time could help us all to flourish in the 21st century.

nef believes that shorter working time is ‘set to become the norm’ as the country grapples with the economic, social and environmental problems confronting it, not least against the backdrop of the work-earn-consume vicious circle, while a goal of a 21-hour week would, in the words of Anna Coote, co-author of the report and nef’s Head of Social Policy let us see that:

Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We’d have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours. And we could even become better employees: less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive. It is time to break the power of the old industrial clock, take back our lives and work for a sustainable future.

Lower working time would, via a reduction in stress patterns, certainly help to make us better people. It might also help unemployment – though probably not in the short-term – and an ending of consumerism might well conserve environmental resources. The latter might be a step too far for some in the face of the need for economies to expand, but a just transition to a green economy, preserving jobs and skills with a view to the benefits of a growing economy, differently constituted, remains the right emphasis here.

A working week of 21 hours for all might or might not be an achievable goal – but at least it’s a good hook for a general discussion on the social impact of working time. The level of unpaid overtime in the UK remains too high and, while average working hours have come down in the last ten years (ASHE reports a reduction of one hour in the mean hours of full-time employees between 1997 and 2009), the working week in the UK remains above the EU average, both for the expanded EU and for member states prior to the accession of countries in eastern and central Europe where working hours are higher.

The following chart shows the long-term decline in working time in the UK, as reported by the OECD. The measure used – average annual hours actually worked per worker – is not ideal (not least since it does not strip out the effects of a rise in temporary and part-time working, and since the reduction between 2001 and 2003 is not readily explicable), but it does show that working time in the UK has fallen by about 15% over the period.

Ahead of next week’s Work Your Proper Hours Day, nef’s report is a worthwhile contribution to the debate at the macro level. The policy solutions associated with such ‘blue sky’ thinking are frequently problematic, and this is no exception. Nevertheless, the major difficulty always lies in making this sort of debate meaningful at the micro level, where the notion of such drastic cuts in working time means little to many full-time employees focused as they are on keeping their jobs, not to say their pensions. On a day-to-day basis, the basic goal remains one of getting people to think about their own work-life balance and, in this context, such reports continue to offer useful service. A reduction of a similar order to that reported by the OECD, and over a quicker period, would be welcome and if the report contributes to that objective, well and good.

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Written by Calvin

15/02/2010 at 2:45 pm

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