Why are we still working so hard?

ScreenHunter_2130 Apr. 22 14.57

Cross-posted from The Conversation

In a world of iPhones and drones, people are right to wonder why they are still working so hard. The past century saw huge technological advances and yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in leisure time: people are working as hard as ever.

The Easter break lasts for four days; couldn’t every weekend be like this?

Proponents of shorter work time have received two pieces of goods news recently. One is the announcement of a new law in France to prevent employees being required to read work emails out of office hours. The other is the decision in Sweden to experiment with a six-hour work day for some public sector workers.

These two proposals go against the grain in several respects. The French legislation challenges the prerogative of employers to require workers to be on call when not at work – it recognises that modern technology such as iPhones has extended work time, without additional pay, and seeks to protect and promote the “free time” of workers. The Swedish experiment challenges the norm of a 9-5 work day – it recognises the potential economic and social value of a shorter work day and is consistent with a broader movement to promote leisure time as a means to a higher standard of life.

But the two proposals are also relatively limited in scope. The French law only says that workers should not have to check their work emails after 6pm. There is a concern that workers could still feel pressurised to read emails out-of-hours and there is a question mark over whether the law will be enforceable in practice. The legislation also only covers a section of white collar workers, leaving the rest of the workforce unprotected. The Swedish experiment is limited only to public sector workers. There is no requirement on the private sector to experiment with shorter work time – the quest to deliver positive returns to shareholders is likely to mean that most private firms will continue with normal patterns of work time.

Experiments in shorter work time, however, have proved successful, suggesting that the private sector might benefit from their implementation. WK Kellog – of cereals fame – famously improved productivity at his plant by operating a six-hour work day. The economic benefits from shorter work time stem from workers being more refreshed and focused at work. Six productive hours can yield the same output as a full eight-hour work day.

Evidence shows that longer work hours make us less productive. The example of the Netherlands shows how shorter work time can be achieved without a reduction in productivity and in living standards. Longer work hours are also associated with poor health and higher mortality rates – we may be risking our lives by working longer.

As I have written before, the case for working less is ultimately about promoting a higher quality of life including a higher quality of work. It is about giving us more time to realise our creative potential in all kinds of activities; it is about achieving a life that uplifts us, rather than leaves us exhausted and frustrated.

But, given the benefits on offer, why are we not working less? Here are five reasons:

Employer power: The decline of unions coupled with a more flexible labour market (meaning less job security) have granted employers more power to maintain work hours that suit their own economic interests.

Consumerism: Workers are swayed by mass advertising and sophisticated marketing to demand more goods and services which in turn requires that they work more.

Inequality: Workers are more likely to enter into competitive forms of consumption and to feel more pressure to work longer where levels of inequality are high. Evidence shows that countries with higher inequality tend to have longer work hours.

Household debt: The build-up of household debt, especially in the US and the UK, has put added pressure on workers to work longer.

Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home.

Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work time is essential. Employers won’t voluntarily reduce work time, and workers remain unable or unwilling to opt for shorter work time themselves. We must gain the collective will to curb the time we spend at work.

Other countries can learn from the example of France and Sweden. But given the barriers to shorter work time, wider reforms will be needed if we are to ever achieve a four or three day working week.

The goal of working less may appear utopian. But the quality of our lives inside and outside work depends on its achievement.

Article by David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy at University of Leeds


    • > Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work time is essential.

      Rather than experimenting with 6 hour days (which is a good start to prove it works), couldn’t there be a handful of relatively simple policy changes to effect this?

      To limit the working week across the whole economy:

      1. As of yesterday, the hourly rate of each employee will be multiplied by 40 (hours per week) then divided by 30 (hours per week) to become the employee’s New Hourly Wage (NHW) from date X.

      2. After X date, hours in excess of 30 during any working week (Mon-Sun) are considered overtime and are to be paid at NHW * 1.33. Salaried employees will receive these funds in addition to their weekly salary.

      To encourage long-term savings (and self-funded retirement):

      3. Individuals who hold any funds in an FDIC-insured institution longer than 365 days consecutive will earn interest tax-free up to X% of the yearly minimum wage’s gross income. Individuals within Y% of their demographic’s life expectancy will earn interest tax-free up to Z% of the yearly minimum wage’s gross income.

      To encourage sound monetary policy:

      4. All economic statistics will be re-based on the individual. E.g. GDP looks to the whole of the nation, while iGDP will be GDP divided by population to show growth per person.

      5. From X date, all government mandated dollar thresholds will re-adjust on January 1 of each year to reflect the growth/shrinkage of iGDP (or iCPI).


      #1 could be phased in over the course of years slowly moving down from 40-30 while maintaining the income earned at the original 40 hours/week and allowing business to adjust.

      #2 would have issues with standing contracts, but again, phased in over X years.

      #3 would encourage long-term savings that could be used as capital. This would have to be carefully worded so as to not include “Corporate Persons”. Further, worded by demographic, this becomes fair across everyone (just the demographic brackets would need to be defined ;). But hell, since “Corporate Persons” don’t have a life expectancy or demographic, this could be used to limit their ability to use this.

      #4 would be a means of seeing actual growth from the perspective of the individual. In this should be some better definitions of what GDP, CPI, etc actually are. E.g. CPI = 1ltr of medium grade fuel, 1ltr of milk, 1ltr of Coke, 1kg of flour, 1kg of sugar… as purchased from each state’s X top population centers at outlets representing >=Y% of the sales in the local market.

      #5 would basically be an automatic COLA adjust, which we all know can and likely will be gamed, but at least we won’t have constant debate over adjusting brackets as they’d automatically adjust.

      • Hell, even better than #5… Have everything based on some multiple of the minimum wage, then simply adjust the minimum wage based on iCPI/iGDP/whatever.

  1. Professor Spencer needs to go back about 100 years and do some reading (eg, Michael Flürscheim, James William “JW” Bennett). As does the world’s latest economic celebrity, Thomas Piketty.

    The reason for this “phenomenon” has been known for a very long time.

    Compound Usury = geometric growth in “fictitous” financial wealth claims accruing to the money-lenders; ergo, ever-growing indebtedness (thus, labour slavery) of everyone else.

    Real productive economy = arithmetic growth.

    The evidence of several hundred years’ history of incredible industrial and technological advances is crystal clear. Productivity gains cannot possibly keep pace with the relentless, exponential growth of compound usury claims.

    Usurers win.

    • Yep. Apart from keeping everyone working longer it also causes a lot of the boom/bust cycle we all enjoy so much.
      Problem only goes away when the debt does. Either through the economy dying from the bloodloss, or a Jubilee, or a war or revolution.

      I’m really hoping we can somehow fix this without lots of people getting killed.

  2. We work hard because rent, dividends and interest don’t pay themselves.

    Fix wage share of GNI at 62% then we’ll get a fair outcome.

    In this age of excess capital, (i.e. demand), investment returns should be more expensive, or lower yields.

    That’s not the case.

  3. I’d switch to part-time in 2-3 years if house prices weren’t insane. Alas, I must wait until they drop at which time LibLab (still as popular as ever) will come for my savings to save the banks.

  4. because system worse than slavery is very popular these days

    average slave in Ancient Rome was working less hours (around 5-6 hours a day, with 100+ holidays) than average worker today. An average 13th century male peasant was working less (around 1600h per annum )

    • Correct.

      From that perspective, the “dark ages” were perhaps not so dark as popularly painted in our “modern” panglossian world.

      Hmmmm, I wonder if 1,000+ years of usury prohibition had anything to do with those work:leisure statistics.

    • Yes, but it was also legal for you to kill your slaves. And they sure as hell didnt have any rules against sexual harassment in the workplace

      • no, it wasn’t legal to kill slaves at any point of time. Slaves were almost equally protected by government as other citizens (women were not protected regardless of their social status). If a master abused slaves government had right to take slaves and to punish the master.

        In Ancient Rome, slaves were allowed to get par-time job afternoon and they were paid enough to earn money to buy their “freedom” in just few years. Most of them never wanted “freedom” because it wasn’t good or special in any way.

      • “It’s amazing what can be achieved with an infinite supply of slaves heavily indebted serfs”

      • That’s a mightily romanticised view on slavery.

        I imagine the small percentage of slaves with proportionally uncommon skills were treated reasonably well. After all, they would have been expensive and/or difficult to replace.

        The majority that were unskilled labourers (/prostitutes/etc), however, would have been treated as disposable.

        I guess since being free was practically meaningless, they never tried to run away, right ?

        Never forget that slaves were considered property, and treated as you would treat any property – if it’s expensive, you take care of it, if it’s cheap, you don’t.

  5. When a new iphone or S5 costs the same price as a cheap 50″ Flat screen you know there is something wrong.

  6. We are living through the age of accountants and project managers and MBAs. All it takes is a few sad, tight-arsed, emotionally crippled, spiritually devoid, unenlightened, wanker bosses and Board members to ruin it for everyone. Spurn your inbox, enjoy your lunch, work to rule, and piss on their graves.

    • Oooh, you little revolutionary, you. My guess is you’re in the public service and what you describe is PS work to rule. Oooh, the resistance, the bravery. Ffs.

      • Feel free not to reply to my every comment, you rancid conservative pustule. Your guess here is as good as your instinct in every other matter. Blinkered pig ignorant.

      • Lol. You’ve missed your calling. You appear well suited to a public service career. Obviously I flatter you.

      • …says a work-shy phoney Taoist conservative layabout who spends his entire day on this website. ‘Lol’ is it ? Yes, indeed.

  7. Yet people use the term “back to the 50s” as if that’s hell on earth. When we should literally be going back to the 50s in a tonne of ways, minus the racism and sexism of course.

    The people of the left have been brainwashed to be just as ineffectual as the bogans on the right.

    Who did that? Masterful. Or maybe it was just plain old stupidity. My money’s on the latter.

    • But 1950s and 1920s were marked by unparalleled prosperity precisely because WWII and WWI respectively destroyed a huge chunk of the world’s productive capacity.

      In other words, it is impossible to “go back to the good old days of 50s” without first going through a WWIII.

  8. Anyone who read Harry S. Dent’s work has a VERY GOOD clue why: “The family spending cycle”.
    One keyword: children.

    People get married and get children. And as children grow older they cost the parents more and more money. It forces the father to work more hours. And it forces the mother to work as well.

    Mrs. Elizabeth Warren studied why families went broke so much in the US. The results were amazing:
    She compared a typical family of two parents and two children from 1970 with the same family in 2005 and she found a number of amazing things:

    This family in 2005 spent less money on:
    – clothes (-30%)
    – food (-12%)
    – Appliances (-50%)
    – cars (-12%)

    But this family in 2005 spent MORE on 5 (five) other things:
    – Mortgage payments (+76%)
    – Healthcare Insurance (+75%)
    – A second car (+52%)
    – Childcare (didn’t exist at all in 1970)
    – taxes (+12%)

    This family earned twice as much (from ~ $ 32.000 to ~$ 73.000) in 2005 compared with 1970 but it spent 3 times as much (from 50% of 32.000 to 75% of $ 73.000) on the 5 items mentioned above. Yet total free disposable income after paying this 5 items was smaller in 2005 than in 1970.

    But at the same time savings went down from +10% (1970s) down – 4% in 2005. Credit card debt went up as well from 1.4% of US income (1970) up to 15% in 2005.


    • Savings are an economists worst enemy.

      The more people that live hand to mouth – the more control governments have, and the more ‘economic growth’ a country has.

      Everyone knows we are worse off than 40 or 50 years ago, because everything is measured in pure gross earnings….. not net earnings, not net savings, and not net quality of life.

      There is only one good thing about the modern world, and that is the internet. Shame that most businesses and governments don’t know how to use it.

      • Did you click on the link & watch the video ? It’s lengthy (57 minutes) but it’s worth EVERY minute !!!!

  9. We are ‘working longer’ because we are looking busy longer.

    I’d also love to see the ‘average commute time’ overlaid onto the hours worked as well. You may well find that in years gone by, the average Australian working person was away from home 8 or 8.5 hours per day – but these days it’s closer to 12.

    But, how much of our lives spent are ‘wasted’. Stuck in traffic, on public transport, coffee catch ups, facebooking on work time.

    I challenge everyone to actually measure how much time they spend ‘working’ per week – and it’s not all that much.

    We just pad out our days because in Australia – time ‘looking like we are working’ is valued more then actual output. It’s actually caused by the fact unions fought for an hourly rate, meaning that people put in ‘hours’ of work, not ‘output’ of work.

    • “… people put in ‘hours’ of work, not ‘output’ of work.”

      Precisely. That’s why I think the long work hours thing is as much cultural as driven by requirements for higher productivity per worker (as required by usury, global elite, etc. etc.).

      If the real motivation of the masters was greater productivity (so they could lay claim to even more of global wealth) then they would surely approach it scientifically and reduce hours with a focus on enhancing productivity (links in original post from The Conversation give examples of the scientific basis for this claim).

      But if it’s just about the trappings of power, then longer hours (literally – the visible suffering of underlings) makes sense.

  10. “We buy a car to go to work. We go to work to buy a car” Jane Kay Holtz

    “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.” Ellen Goodman – All Consuming Passion, 1998

    “In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee heard testimony that estimated a work week of between fourteen to twenty-two hours a week by the end of the year 2000.” Affluenza pg 41

    For myself I work in a factory and our output has been increasing 20% year on year for the last 6 years. I didn’t believe it possible, certainly there’s a roof there somewhere, but that’s been my experience. Of course there are more employees but still the increase in workload and output has been very noticeable. Stress is building and we keep on hitting capacity constraints.

    Prior to Easter our output for 4 days somehow magically matched what we normally do in 5. On the Thursday even the people that drag the chain (frustrating people to work with) busted their guts to get out early (they needed to join the Easter Traffic jam).