Eva Cox | Hands up who wants a 30-hour week

Is there one clear possible area of policy reform that would provide a good basis for making society more civil? A core issue that affects a range of social well being indicators and our life choices? Could too much to do and longer working hours be at the heart of the discontents and social inadequacies of contemporary life?

This shift seems to have come from the move to market models of society with other policy changes that underpin our current obsessions with economic outputs, not social well being. This move that started in the 80s put macho versions of self-interested individualism at the core of policy.

It undermined the original ideas of the women’s liberation movement which was to change dominant macho cultures – not just add women into them. Therefore it is my feminism that questions the relative importance of public paid work and private unpaid tasks.

How about we start the push for a norm of a 30-hour paid working week?

If this is sounding radical or unattainable, the UK think tank, the New Economics Foundation has just produced a report, Towards 21 Hours, suggesting we should aim for a future paid workload of 21 hours per week.

The author, Anna Coote, starts her case with the following points:

1. John Maynard Keynes envisaged that by the beginning of the 21st century, most people would work only 15 hours a week.

2. If time spent on housework and childcare was given a monetary value equal to the minimum wage, it would be worth £253.7 billion: 21 per cent of GDP.

3. Shorter working hours does not mean less productivity. In fact, studies suggest that those who work shorter hours are more productive.’

Later, Coote states:

A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.

I am not proposing we go as far as that at present. However, I am proposing that the Federal government address time issues by:

  • Initiating a Time Budgeting Policy framework as the basis for assessing which Government policies affect peoples’ allocation of their time to paid work, unpaid work, leisure, production and consumption.
  • Referring to the Productivity Commission a brief to look at hours of work vis a vis outputs and outcomes and productivity.

Terms of reference could include:

1. Are terms such as full time and part time of any serious value?

2. Changes to current definitions of hours of work as the basis for policy making.

3. Are current terms used by ABS or other policy and reporting authorities for policy making still useful or just for international comparisons with the ILO (International Labour Organisation)?

4. Would it be possible to look at a paid work unit of 3 or 3.5 hours being established as the basic unit of paid work and multiples of this be used to record and assess time allocations?

5. How do we value the productivity of unpaid work and its relationship to paid work in areas such as care and home production?

In the pre-feminist days there was no discussion of unpaid work, just paid work and the problem of too much time off! The feminism of the 70s was devised under the widespread assumption that the future would inevitably contain shorter paid working hours for all. We need to ask what happened as like the paperless office, the ‘leisure’ that never happened.

The 80s saw working hours become longer at more senior levels, while less skilled workers lost their jobs. Productivity became associated with long hours worked, technology was used to get rid of routine support workers and hours lengthened as people became fearful they might lose their jobs.

Women who moved into paid work, often part time, over the previous decades were seen as not serious workers, if not full-time overtime oriented. The feminist options for all workers to be able to combine paid work, career, family and community responsibilities became less possible.

Few, if any, men are prepared to challenge the false proposition that longer hours means more productivity.

Less time on paid work means having more time for other activities that can reduce consumption of services and other goods: care of others, home productions, creative involvements, volunteering, leisure and pleasure.

If both men and women took similar time allocations, it could break down the implicit gender barriers in paid and unpaid work and reduce consumption. It means more paid work to share around, so those in paid work should be more able to manage the multiple demands and pleasures.

And it may increase individual productivity as there is evidence that shorter working hours are more productive. Maybe we can learn more from Aboriginal priority setting values?

Start by doing away with the useless distinction between part time and full time as more or less than 35 hours per week. This could be a first step in defining what reasonable socially responsible workloads could and should be.

Any takers?

This article was first published in The Punch here and re-published with permission.
Blog Comments

As a 1990s manager in State Gov’t, that had the facility for part time work, I suggested taking two part timers, and was told I must be kidding, that in IT that would be considered a joke, but I believed I would get more done with higher motivated half timers. Later I wanted to reduce my own working week, but by that time I was considered too senior to go part time, it was all or nothing!
Since being made redundant some years ago, and subsequently realising it was early retirement, I have had a better lifestyle being time rich and relatively money poor. Once the mortgage is paid off, it really is amazing how cheaply one can live. I am sure my health and happiness have improved.
Being male getting past the protestant work ethic was the largest barrier, ie, took 3 years of frenetic job hunting, before I realised I was retired from conventional work. Melissa Lucashenka’s paper highlights the difference in Aboriginal values and damage of the Protestant work ethic in a land of abundance.
Related to this is the realisation of being ‘affluent’, and its links to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. The higher needs rely far less on consumerism and hence to need for employment.
Now I work part time, mainly casual, doing things that interest me.
I think there is much to be had in exploring this.

Baffled as to why I need somebody else determining how many hours I should work each week ?

However thank-you for planning my life . That makes two of us doing it plus almost
the entire bureaucracy , Federal and State Governments and my local council .

If we are to have a chance of reversing the climate change we must find some new economic model. Is it this, in which work is reduced, or Parecon in which production is by common consent or Natural Step and the variants there of including I guess the work of the New Economic Foundation or do we simply decide the environment must be treated as a capital good and accounted accordingly hoping to reacn Herma Daly’s steady state?
Growth must be reduced even if a new energy source of infinite proiportions if only to husband scarce resources, some of which now seem to be finite. Matter cannot be destroyed only changed to of disarray requiring both great amounts of energy and time. Okay sure we know of many processes mimicing nature in which the energy needed is lower, lower pressures and temperatures for the process and sometimes greater speed, so I must be careful in pontificating. At present business is not in the frame of mind to consider these only slowly coming to accept the energy efficiency proposed by Lovins 1972 contemperaneous with the Club of Rome report, much maligned at the time but runnoing the model from then to now and comparing the predicted results with actuality shows good agreement CSIRO.
So should we first try to understand why vested interest and current knowledge of business and electorate is so fixed, after all recent work demonstrates that the brain far from being a fixed entity post education (inculcation?) can change even radically. Have we time ? Hansen would say NO.
So we wait for a catastrophe minor one hopes and probably in poorer part of the world or inAfrica whichg are predicted tobeing hurt first, and use this as spur to action?

50 years ago men did most of the paid type of work that had to be done in 40 hours, so now that most women are also doing that paid type of work as well … and we have less children per family … and we have computers and photocopiers and email and virtually every material thing is made not here but in China … Hang on – what are we actually doing in all those hours of work?

I like the idea but how can it be implemented? We have a society in which economics dominates with profit its surrogate which unless large to satisfy shareholders (so we are told, though CEO salaries might deny it given no clear relation between salary and compony profit), risk being taken over and stripped by a competitor. A populace used as the consumer of production allowing further production with an inculcated beleif that more correlates with position happiness and the best car in town. Long hours essential to cover the costs of mass production, the capital invested. All business, particularly mining tear and rip achieving a greater output not thinking that the resource which includes the environment might be better left until our wisdom grows and we see that in many cases more value accrues by waiting. (sure economically there is the ongoing rent of lost production ) a good example being water for which there seems no substitute yet we continue to mine non renewable water from deep down in the name of maximum production or frack the equivalent of clear felling. As an aside what is to be the base stock of pharmacetucals presently using oil or roads also using oil?
But and here is what I see as the big problem how can attitudes be changed in the time available? By Government fiat, any opposition would meander about choice and freedom. By the people informed by ?. The media is the tool of politicians, economists (some) and big business happy to spout the present paradigm with an eye to profit, quite content to lie misinform or to say nothing as needed.
Further even if most people given a certain l;evel of basic goods can live quite happily but there always seems to be the few (the American Century or the many preceding) unhappy with just being devise some grand plan even economics, maybe Paracon which suffers the same problem, arouse money power and some people to their bidding. Iraq as and is a goiod example. How can this be prevented?
We surely need to do something, something having longer vision than our current crop of leaders seem to have. Do we need a small catastophe? It must be something hitting everyone for the UN claims of deaths, manslaughter, arising from our produced climate change, are ignored. We need afright not further scholarly articles!

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