Issue #4: work

Work less, live more

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by Tim Dean on July 2, 2014

Why do we work so much? Why do we even work at all? For a great chunk of human history it was a simple matter of survival. We needed every able-bodied person working every day just to make it through the winter. Neglect to hunt or gather for just a few days and the consequences could be grave indeed.

Then something remarkable happened. About two and a half millennia ago some pockets of enterprising folk passed a milestone: they produced a surplus.

It’s no accident that the birth of philosophy happened soon after. It couldn’t have happened any sooner. Thales of Miletus – called by some the father of Western philosophy – remarked that in his time they had perfected the practical arts: cultivating crops, herding animals, building high-walled cities, navigating the seas, and defending it all with highly-trained hoplites.

It was precisely the tiny surplus produced by such “perfection” that made it possible for Thales to avoid dirtying his hands with the practical arts and devote his energies to the pursuit of the impractical arts, i.e. philosophy. He laboured less because his society could afford it.

The advent of the weekend holiday came only a few centuries later; as with the birth of philosophy, it couldn’t have happened any sooner. As populations grew in size and complexity, they began reaping greater benefits from the division of labour, specialisation, economies of scale and mass coordination. The surplus grew.

Around this time more than one religion mandated a weekly day of rest, ostensibly for worship, but also crucial in promoting the community ties that were essential in allowing populations to grow even further. They enjoyed this day off each week because their societies could afford it.

The world then hit an economic ceiling that was only shattered by the industrial revolution 2,000 years later. However, mechanisation, mass labour and more free-flowing capital boosted the surplus to unprecedented levels.

Thanks to this unprecedented surplus the five-day working week came several decades later. In 1926 Henry Ford shut down the production line over Saturday and Sunday and the labour movement pushed to reduce the number of hours worked per week. Finally, in the United States following the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined the five-day, 40-hour working week in law. Most industrialised countries soon followed suit, enjoying their newfound leisure time because their societies could afford it.

Yet in recent decades something strange has happened: we’re working more again. We are now at a point in history of unparalleled wealth and prosperity, of unprecedented surplus, and yet many of us are still working like our very lives depended on it. We are now rich in everything except time.

Many of us feel there just aren’t enough hours in the day to achieve everything we need to do, let alone everything we want to do. We lament the cost of childcare and a desire to spend more time with our kids. Hobbies are disappearing. Palliative consumption is increasing. We strive to engineer a fruitful work-life balance but get stymied by work that increasingly bleeds into our private time.

That’s why it’s time to move to a four-day working week.

The maths are compelling. We give up only 20 per cent of our income and gain a 50 per cent boost in our leisure time. And that’s assuming economic output would drop by 20 per cent on a four-day week. It might drop only a fraction of that. It might even rise. In fact, the prevailing trend through the 20th century was that everywhere working hours decreased, real income per capital went up.

A four-day week imposes less stress on our infrastructure, such as energy, roads and public transport. It means fewer accidents and free-flowing traffic, lubricating the transport of goods. It means less pollution and less carbon emissions – which could delay the onset (and the costs of mitigating) climate change by several decades.

A four-day working week gives us all more time to recover and rebound, ready for another productive bout of work. It reduces stress and the manifold health impacts that come with it. It gives us more time with our family and friends, improving relationships and buttressing mental health. It allows us to pursue hobbies, which in themselves can spawn innovative new businesses. And it even lowers unemployment by sharing the jobs around.

Even if it did mean a drop in income, one can still live very comfortably with a 20 per cent pay cut. The average Australian took home $75,000 in 2013. All things being equal, a four-day week would land that average Australian $60,000. Not a bad pay packet when bundled with a long weekend every weekend.

Of course there are costs, and there are those who would resist on the grounds that economic growth is paramount. But if we believe the economy works for us, and not the other way around, then the move to a four-day week is actually a triumph. It proves that the system is actually working. It proves that the long march from work-to-survive to work-to-flourish has been worth it.

Ultimately, the time has come to move to a four-day working week because we can afford it.

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