Last Wednesday I attended an event at LSE (under the auspices of the New Economics Foundation) exploring the idea of working-time reduction with an eventual goal of moving to a normal working week of 21 hours. Various people asked me to write up the event, so that’s what I’m doing, though I claim no special expertise in the surrounding economics and social science. The lectures were filmed, so I expect that they’ll be up somewhere to watch soon, which will make my comments superfluous. Tom Walker of Ecological Headstand was also present, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some remarks from him there soon.
The three speakers were Juliet Schor (author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth), Robert Skidelsky (former Tory spokesman in the Lords, but goodness knows what his party affiliation is today) and Tim Jackson (author of Prosperity Without Growth).
Schor explained that labour-time reduction had been an issue twenty years ago (I guess she was thinking of people like André Gorz) but has slipped out of the policy debate during the boom years. Now, in the post-2008 world, governments are pushing the line that we all need to work harder, for more hours and for more of our lives. But that, argued Schor is exactly wrong. Working-time reduction offers the threefold benefit of few people being unemployed, of less ecological damage and of people having more time to spend on social activities (cue mention of The Big Society). Even if we could grow our way to full employment, we shouldn’t. Rather we should reorient away from overconsumption towards leading better quality lives. More time-stressed households are have more carbon-intensive lifestyles. She held up the Netherlands as a model of how to start moving in this direction. Apparently, the Dutch are the slackers of Europe generally and, some years ago, made new civil service contracts 80%. You have the freedom there to choose to be a five, four, three, two or one-day-a week employee. And she specifically referred to the one-day-a-week Professor (so maybe Ingrid can comment!). [UPDATE: (after gastro george’s comment below) – Schor didn’t envisage a scenario where people would be on shorter hours and less pay, but rather one in which pay is held static but productivity gains get channelled into shorter hours. So the reduction would be gradual. Since we currently have a situation (at least in the US and the UK) of static pay but productivity gains funding increased income for the 1 per cent, this gradual shift would be redistributive in an egalitarian direction.]
Skidelsky was next up. He began by talking about Keynes’s Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren in which Keynes foresaw a radical reduction in working hours and asked why Keynes’s vision hadn’t come to pass. He offered a range of possible explanations (the joys of work, fear of leisure, increased inequality, pressures from employers on a cowed workforce, and pathological consumerism). The business of government should be human well-being in some all-things-considered sense (shades of Sen here) and government should act to enable people to negotiate shorter working hours and, perhaps, by introducing a universal basic income. Government should also act to reduce social pressures to consume via intervention in the advertising industry. He also floated ideas about a progressive consumption tax, but I didn’t get any clear sense of how this would work.
Finally: Tim Jackson. I took fewer notes during Jackson’s contribution, so I probably missed some detail. What was interesting, though was the way he challenged a key assumption behind Schor’s and Skidelsky’s talks. Whereas they had been very gung ho about the need to channel increasing productivity gains into shorter hours, he challenged much of the talk around productivity itself, especially in the service sector and the public sector. In this regard he cited a “recent study” which showed how nurses, subject to productivity pressures from managers in the NHS, had started to feel less empathy for their patients because of the stress they were under.
My brief, but unscientific reactions to the whole project. First, I’m sympathetic, I really am, to the idea that people should work and consume less and that we should attend more to real life quality. But this doesn’t seem very realistic in my own life for two reasons: first, even if my employer were sympathetic (unlikely) I feel very hard pressed now to produce the level of research output necessary for me to stay competitive with other academics (not just in the UK, but elsewhere). I suspect this generalizes to many people in professional jobs: we couldn’t achieve the kinds of things we want to in our careers on those kinds of hours. This isn’t necessarily a problem, so long as there isn’t compulsion. Some (many) people have shitty jobs with low intrinsic rewards: removing the burden of work for them would be an unqualified good thing. Second, it is all very well Juliet Schor telling us to transition to a low hours/lower consumption economy. I’m cool with consuming less. The problem is that I, and just about everyone else, has taken out huge mortgages and bank loans to pay (in part) for the consumption we’ve already had. Hard to reduce the hours unless (or until) the debt goes away. Third, there was distressingly little discussion of the politics of this. Whatever the real social and economic benefits, the French 35-hour week wasn’t a political success (perhaps because it was watered-down) and Sarkozy was able to campaign effectively on behalf of the “France qui se lève tôt”. Some kind of post-mortem on this experience would have been helpful, albeit that it took place in a different, pre-crisis, environment.