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.