We live in a time of madness. A form of insanity rules our lives. As the world becomes more productive, some of us work longer hours, some of us are no longer needed in paid labour at all, and all of us are encouraged to spend, borrow and buy more and more. We keep pressing harder on the accelerator, pushing more people off the vehicle and expecting the driver to stay longer at the wheel. Can we imagine a more insane system?
We need to slow down before we crash. We need a four-day working week.
In Australia up until the 1980s, we had a strong tradition of trading increasing productivity for less working hours. We were the first nation to win the eight hour day.
But something changed. During the 1990s, we took the money instead. Those of us in full-time employment started to work longer hours. Increasing productivity went to increasing profits and wages (for some at least). In the 2000s, we continued to pay out the dividends of increasing productivity but the employers and their shareholders cut wage earners out of the bargain. Productivity overshot wage growth – which is just a fancy way of saying your boss (or his bank) took your money. Us working harder is no longer a basis for our shared prosperity, although it is the foundation for somebody else’s profit. Our future prosperity won’t come from us individually working harder and longer – some of the poorest people in the world endure lives of unceasing toil.
During this period, from the 1980s onwards, where average working hours and productivity rose together, so did job insecurity and underemployment. The net result of long-term productivity growth without a reduction in regular full-time hours is that less of us are required to get the job done.
Just look at the amount of unpaid overtime we do in Australia. The average Australian in full-time employment works 42.8 hours per week, putting us ninth in OECD rankings for average hours of work for full-time employees. And we have a massive unpaid overtime problem – it accounts for 14.7 percent of total hours worked in Australia.
Let me spell out what this means. No one needs to be unemployed, and with a 32 hour working week, no one needs to be forced in to underemployment or precarious work. The stress and anxiety some of us feel for working too long, and the depression and frustration some of us feel for not getting work or enough of it are linked – they are both opposite ends of our antiquated and unbalanced approach to work. Our suffering is not a necessity: it is a social choice. We can spread out the total working hours in our economy and no one need miss out.
A four day working week not only benefits our people but also our planet. If we channel our productivity gains into time, instead of increased production and consumption, we burn up less of our finite resources. In other words, if we drive a little slower not only will we be better able to appreciate the scenery but there will also be more in the tank for future generations. A shorter working week helps to lower greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study of the Center of Economic and Policy Research projected that reduced working hours could mitigate up to half of non-locked-in global warming. Commuting to work less often and opting to use more of our common prosperity on leisure time instead of buying stuff helps us to avoid a climate disaster. If you’re worried about crashing when driving, you slow down. Making time gives us time to safely transition to a low-carbon economy (and we can catch up with the people we care about while we wait).
One objection to all of this is the sheer impracticality of introducing a four day week. Workers won’t want to lose a day’s wages and neither will bosses want to pay the same weekly wages for one day’s less work.
Certainly, a sudden cut to the working week would be a shock. Slamming hard on the brakes creates a whole lot of unpredictable results. It might turn out OK – but you wouldn’t do it if you had a choice.
There is, however, a way of sustainably introducing a four day week.
In Australia, we can introduce a four day week, one hour at a time over a six year period. Our 38-hour week is one of our National Employment Standards guaranteed by the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). Over a six year timeframe we can reduce this provision to a 32-hour week, giving us an effective three day weekend. We take our foot off of the accelerator and gently begin to press the brake. Taking the working week down one hour per year gives people and business time to plan and adjust. You can plan around an approximately three percent drop per year in full time working hours. Furthermore, the six year timeframe gives government, business and unions time to account for and deal with any unintended consequences. If industry minimum weekly wages remain the same adjusted for inflation then no permanent worker need be worse off materially, while insecure and casual workers should be directly and indirectly much better off.
For casual workers, there would be immediate and ongoing increases to their hourly wage (which are calculated by dividing the applicable minimum weekly wage for their work by the number of hours in a working week).
Reduce the hours in a working week and you increase the corresponding hourly wage for a casual worker. For all of us who find ourselves on the periphery of the workplace, whether it is in one of the myriad forms of insecure work or completely out of work, a reduction in the full-time working week also opens up new opportunities for work. When we reduce the working week, we will find that some of the work need not have been done in the first place, we will find that some of the work can be compressed into a shorter period, and we will find that other work can be done by employing more people.
The time has come for us to have more time. A four day working week will allow more of us more space to actually go out and live our lives. There’s no need for us to rush around faster and longer. For our own sake, our neighbour’s sake and the sake of future generations we need to slow down, enjoy the journey and explore a little more.
This Christmas and holiday season, don’t feel guilty about spending time away from work. We should be doing more of it, every week.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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