Do you want a 15 hour work week?

We arrived in Milan, Italy yesterday, hungry. All throughout the flight, visions of plates overflowing with pasta danced in my head.

Upon landing at the airport, we took a bus straight for the city. On the way, we fervently started looking up Italian restaurants – and, no surprise, there were over 6,000.

But all of them were closed.

Okay, we didn’t check all 6,000+ restaurants, but a sizable sample convinced us there wasn’t much point trying. Of course, we had made the obvious mistake of forgetting about riposo – the mid-day break of several hours to, as the word suggests, ‘rest‘. And rest is so important: we have a need to nap, one that so often goes unfulfilled in the 9-5 day (or, let’s be more realistic, the 8:30-5:30 or 6:30 or 7… you get my drift day). Unless you’re George from Seinfeld. Studies in Greece even suggest that midday napping may be associated with decreased risk of heart disease.

While we ended up finding a fantastic place for lunch called Nùn that sells gyros (and had more  than our fill of Italian for dinner when the restaurants reopened), the experience got me thinking about patterns of work – how they differ across the world, and how we take for granted that what we are familiar with is ‘normal’.

I’ve written before about Keynes’ predictions of a 15 hour work week by the turn of the (last) century. In the same year, Julian Huxley predicted the 2 day work week.’These great thinkers were right about one thing.’ says CNN money, ‘Technological progress has made workers more productive than ever before. Yet rather than cutting the work week gradually over time (like the Europeans did), productivity gains have fueled a consumerism boom in the United States. So instead of taking time off, Americans are just buying much more stuff.’ According to the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Hunnicutt, the shorter work week is the forgotten American Dream.

In my native Australia, the average worker puts in 1,665 hours per year – that’s over 32 hours a week (in reality, it’s actually higher than this as I haven’t factored in holidays). This includes full and part-time employees. The UK is remarkably similar, at 1,674, and in Italy, it’s 1,725, or around 33 hours per week. These countries compare favourably to the average for OECD countries, which is 1,776, or more than 34 hours a week. The US, however, is slightly above average, at 1,790 hours a year, and hardworking Mexico wins the dubious honour of most hours worked per worker last year out of the OECD countries, with a mammoth 2,246 hours – that’s an average of 43.2 hours a week, again without accounting for holidays – way above the ideal, but a decrease compared to 15 years ago, when the figure for Mexico stood closer to 45 hours a week – three times what Keynes predicted. In Singapore and India, the figure is closer to 46 hours a week. And if you’re unlucky enough to end up in a North Korean labour camp, you might be worked for 122 hours a week.

Just in case that is as unfathomable for you as it was for me, here’s a quick reality check: there are only 168 hours in a week. If you work for 122 of those hours, you are left with 46. In other words, the North Korean labour camp worker has almost the inverse of the rest of us. That’s a mere 6.5 hours a day left over to do all of the necessary functions: eat, sleep and so on.

At the other end of the scale is Germany’s 1,371 hours per year or 26 hours a week – but it’s still not quite 15.

If collectively we need to put in so many hours, was Keynes wrong?

First of all, it’s important to emphasise that these are the average hours worked by those who are actually working. Although accurate figures are difficult to gain, it is estimated that around 6% of the world’s population is unemployed. The statistics are worse when it comes specifically to young people, and in particular regions. In the African nations of Djibouti, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, there are more unemployed than employed adults. In fact, in Zimbabwe, the CIA world factbook reports there is an 80% unemployment rate. American Samoa just scrapes in with 49.9% unemployment.

In addition, several factors may be skewing the 6% figure artificially low: while countries like Qatar, Cambodia, Belarus, and Thailand boast unemployment rates of less than 1%, informal sectors of employment mean that up to 60% of workers are in ‘vulnerable employment’ in some areas, and the failure to include ‘unregistered’ job seekers in official figures means that the actual rates are likely to be much higher.

On the one hand, workers are working, on average, more than double the number of hours Keynes predicted, and on the other, there are hundreds of millions of people seeking work.

So if we did start to automate more work, and share jobs, how could it be done?

It seems to me there are two options:

Reduce the number of hours in a work week

While reading Sue Perkins’ great book Spectacles I came across a term I hadn’t before – The Three Day Week. Long have I said that weekends should be three days long, but this notion of a four day weekend sounded positively magical!

Until I discovered that it was implemented due to widespread industrial action in the coal mining industry and the resultant need to conserve electricity.

Still, would a three – or four – day weekend be such a bad thing? In 2009, The Independent reported that Britain was potentially facing a return of The Three Day Week – this time to avoid mass unemployment in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. Around the same time, the US considered the slightly less drastic four-day week.

On a micro level, this is something I often thought of as I went about my job – that I would happily take a 50% pay cut to perform work 50% of the time. In fact, had I not quit working altogether, this is very likely a course of action I would have pursued. With no family or addiction (to drugs, cars, luxury handbags or otherwise) to support, I didn’t need all of the income I received in exchange for giving up most of my waking hours, and I didn’t want to work as many hours as I did. Someone else, in the oversaturated world of PhDs seeking university appointments, would, I am sure, have gladly taken up the other half of my role (despite the stigmas attached to part-time work).

All jobs other than the most highly focused, specialised tasks, such as operating a specific piece of machinery on an assembly line, tend to have multiple facets, and one of the interesting aspects of an academic career path is that these facets are fairly precisely quantified (although the quantification of such things is fraught with problems and as a result, usually somewhat meaningless).

In my particular case, 40% of my time was to be spent teaching, 40% on research, and 20% on administration. And here’s where we come across another way in which job sharing might be beneficial. There’s no reason both people sharing a job need have the exact same qualifications, skills and interests. Very few people are highly and equally talented in several areas.

Of course, I also knew that work has a tendency to expand, and having juggled quite a few fractional positions over my career, working one day in this role, 3 days in another, one day in something else, I knew that it would be nigh on impossible to come to a satisfactory arrangement when the majority of my colleagues were full time, and would (understandably) forget were I not the same.

On a macro level, the notion of a shorter work week has always fascinated me, especially after reading The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, which was one of the first books to challenge my preconceived notions about work, and even more powerfully, Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker, which provided the evidential backing I required. Fisker notes that the 40 hour work week is a relatively recent invention, and one which is completely out of step with our average work times over history. Anthropologists, historians and sociologists believe that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed far more leisure time than we do: one group of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work 2.5 days a week, for 6 hours a day (and 2.5 x 6 = exactly 15 hours).

Better for the environment and your health

Even without reducing the number of hours worked, just reducing the number of days people go in to the office or the factory or the store could have important environmental and health benefits, says Scientific American. Less congestion, less time on transit, more time with family, and increased volunteerism are some of the reasons companies are trialing a four day work week – although there are fears of greater exhaustion if the number of hours isn’t reduced also.

Those over 40 in particular should consider a shorter work week, it seems, with University of Melbourne research suggesting that working more than 25 hours a week may harm the brain power of adults over 40, and working more than 55 hours a week can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, depression, stroke, and diabetes. For less than 25 hours a week, showing up to work can have positive effects on mental functioning, but working beyond that was associated with decreases in memory, and verbal and spatial intelligence.

Better for children

According to Hunnicutt, ‘The idea that we can grow our economies forever and ensure everyone a full-time job is a myth…We have to deliberately choose to work less and therefore buy less.’ CNN money compares one particular European country with America, stating that while Dutch workers are on par with Americans in terms of productivity per hour, they pay higher taxes and earn less. But they also work 11 weeks fewer than their American counterparts per year, enjoy government funded health care, free or cheap college education, and have far more leisure time. In a recent UNICEF ranking of children’s well-being the Netherlands came out on top, while the US was near the bottom. And the Dutch worker also rates much higher in terms of happiness with life overall.

Children also stand to benefit not only from having more relaxed, more present parents, but from experiencing less pressure themselves. Experimentation with a four day school week in Colorado showed that adopting a shorter school week shared a positive relationship with better performance in both reading and mathematics results.

Better for productivity

An added benefit – and one most likely to appeal to employers – is increased productivity. As Parkinson’s law goes, ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. Jason Fried, who moved to a four day work week for his company 37signals states ‘When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.’ Currently, workers tend to waste around 2 hours a day – remove those 10 wasted hours from Germany’s 26 hour work week, and you have what looks very close to a 15 hour work week.

Better for employment

And yes, there is evidence that a shorter work week would reduce unemployment: in West Germany, when work hours were reduced by 3%, 240,000 jobs were created. In the US, when unions won relief time, 9,000 jobs were created to allow workers to take breaks. And in France, 48% of firms which reduced working hours took on new employees.

While some places of employment do offer their workers flexibility, and others are actively adopting shorter work weeks, these options aren’t always available or necessarily desirable to workers. The other option, which I took myself, is to

Reduce the number of years worked

When I first started reading about early retirement and digital nomads and 4 hour work weeks and all of these other exciting ideas, I, like many, was plagued by the idea ‘What if everyone did this? How could it possibly be sustainable?’

Mr. Money Mustache has a fantastic blog on the question of ‘What if everyone became frugal?‘ which is a key part of reducing our total time spent working – whether that be by working a shorter week, or working fewer years – as Hunnicutt suggests – choosing to work less also means choosing to buy less. But nothing answered the question so elegantly for me as a part of the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It’s chapter 6 of the original book, unfortunately no longer included in the edition I bought for myself or to lend, but you can read it for free online:

‘Roger Ringer has a dream. He wants us to re-inhabit the heartland of this country. When he and his wife wanted to move to the country, they found that there was no place like home-the town they’d grown up in. Population: 1,000. Three-bedroom house with a basement: $30,000. Crime: none. Fun: build your own energy-efficient house, grow a garden, play with your kids, enjoy your mate, listen to great music on the stereo, rent an occasional video-just what Roger does. Roger has a vision of young men and women going to the city for five years or so, achieving Financial Independence and then returning to their rural homes with a secure cash flow and a high quality of life.’

This is the other way to share your job – to move over and let someone else have it.

As for sustainability: which is more sustainable? A group of people working huge numbers of hours in order to buy things they do not need, while others have nothing, or everyone working a smaller number of hours, spending less time commuting, less time producing unnecessary ‘stuff’ that chews up natural resources and ends up in land fills, and more time with their loves – both people and interests?

CreativeDo you want a shorter work week? What does your ideal look like?

Today’s featured image is from the window of Solo Pizza, where we ended up enjoying a fantastic walnut and gorgonzola pizza, and some creamy carbonara.

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4 thoughts on “Do you want a 15 hour work week?

  1. Hi Sarah,
    Ive been enjoying your posts this one in particular has my interest, if you reduce the hours worked in industry or commerce and this created more jobs would it be fair to say that the employers simply employed more people to cover the short fall of hours work by previously full time employees, and if so then the one of the keys to working less hours would have to be greater control & education of your financial outgoings (Weekly & month living expenses) in order for this to occur? I was almost going to write that I come for a generation that simply always worked but I don’t really believe that, I think every generation has people who will work to a plan, people who will simply work to live, and finally people who simply don’t want to work.
    I know you quote research in your article and more than likely I’m imprisoned in the Australian experience but I fine it difficult to think that all levels of the working society will be able to embrace the utopian concept of short working hours (Less income) at this stage of our Human development, but hope like hell that it will come to fruition one day as full implementation of the concept, I hope, will create greater freedom and creatively for all.
    Anyway keep up the good work writing these posts I look forward to them. I keep trying to get Michael & Melina to read them.
    Love you Both take care.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks so much for your comment! Great to know you’ve been enjoying the blog – I really appreciate it!!
      You’re 100% right that, for those of us with an income, a key to working fewer hours will be greater financial education and greater control of outgoings – well put. For those who currently have no income – the 6%+ unemployed worldwide, the 80% unemployed in Zimbabwe, the homeless of every nation – there can be an increase in consumption.
      I’m still learning about different ideas and formulating my own opinions about economic systems, but you’ve given me an idea for a new post – thanks!
      As for whether we can work fewer hours at this stage of human development, I think that it is our social and economic development as opposed to our technological development that is holding us back. If you’re interested, there’s a short but fascinating video by CGP Grey here:
      Our love to you and the family!

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