To save the world–or really to even just make our personal lives better–we will need to work less.
Time, like work, has become commodified, a recent legacy of industrial capitalism, where a controlled, 40-hour week (or more) in factories was necessary. Our behavior is totally out of step with human priorities and the nature of today’s economy. To lay the foundations for a “steady-state” economy–one that can continue running sustainably forever–a recent paper argues that it’s time for advanced developed countries transition to a normal 21-hour work week.
This does not mean a mandatory work week or leisure-time police. People can choose to work as long, or short, as they please. It’s more about resetting social and political norms. That is, the day when 1,092 hours of paid work per year becomes the “standard that is generally expected by government, employers, trade unions, employees, and everyone else.”
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a “normal” 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and largely relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).
The NEF argues to achieve more satisfying lives we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to merely consuming).
Besides, it may be the only way a modern global society won’t overwhelm the earth’s resources.
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