Why Work?

The case for working less and living more


Just before leaving my last full-time teaching gig in 2005, I shot off an email to the head of the charter school organization for which I worked explaining that I was leaving my position as a humanities teacher because I felt the job had become completely unsustainable. I could no longer work the 10- to 12-hour days that it took to get all of the work done while remaining sane and healthy. I had no time for my relationships or for my own creative projects, much less for healthy living. I never received a response to my email, but I never regretted sending it.

Rather than returning to full-time employment, I’ve spent the last five years whittling away at my consumption habits, learning to be more self-sufficient in my cooking and food growing, and developing a love for bike riding. I have also spent the last few years justifying this decision to myself and others, staving off the guilt that arises when I see my husband get up each morning to go to his 40-plus-hour-a-week job while I sleep in and make my own schedule as a writer and very part-time online instructor. But a few recent books and studies have begun to make me feel that the ongoing process of shortening my workweek in a manner both sustainable and economically feasible is actually part of a 21st-century Zeitgeist rather than an idler’s cop-out.

In February of 2010, the New Economics Foundation (NEF)—an independent, left-oriented think tank based in Britain that’s dedicated to “improving quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issues”—released a report titled “21 Hours.” Available for free download from the NEF website, the goal of the report is to provoke debate about the economic and environmental benefits of making a 21-hour workweek the norm, as opposed to the current 40-plus-hour week.

The NEF arrived at the number 21 by looking at British time-use surveys on how men and women of working age—which includes the employed, unemployed and those described as “economically inactive”—allocate their time over 24 hours. On average, according to the report, people spend 19.6 hours a week in paid work.

The report puts forward myriad paradigm-shifting theories and proposals concerning work, consumption and the possibilities for societal shift in the next few decades. Part of a greater shift toward sustainability, the idea of transforming work patterns as a way to push society out of its current economic and environmental morass comes not a moment too soon. As a gusher in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico spews tragic amounts of oil like a hemorrhaging wound, there has never been a better time to try to develop new ways of living, ways that no longer tax the earth at such an unprecedented level.

Identified as both a “thought experiment” and a call to action, the “21 Hours” report argues that our current rate of economic and market growth is unsustainable. While the accepted line of argument remains “Growth is good,” in our looking-glass world the opposite is actually true. According to the Global Footprint Network, we are currently using 140 percent of the earth’s capacity. If current population and consumption trends continue, U.N. scenarios suggest that by the middle of the next decade we will need the equivalent of two earths to support us. This is not a doomsday scenario; this is Basic Science 101.

The NEF argues that a shortened workweek is one of the absolute best ways to move toward a less carbon-dependent culture. If people are making less, they will buy less; if they buy less, pressure on the earth’s resources lets up. Furthermore, if citizens spend less time finding and maintaining full-time paid work, they will have more time to do the essential and virtually lost work of community-building, democratic participation, child-rearing and household maintenance. The use of alternative forms of transportation like cycling, bus-riding and car-sharing might become more alluring as people no longer have to rush to and from work.

In addition, with so many people living in poverty and hunger in the world, a shortened workweek could spread jobs more evenly among those who would like to work but currently cannot find employment. Another benefit, according to the NEF, would be a move toward a more gender-equitable society. In an ideal implementation of the plan, it would become easier to create a more equal distribution of work between the genders.

With environmental and economic catastrophe seemingly just around the corner, the shorter workweek may be one solution for creating a more resilient and socially just society while reducing nasty carbon emissions and unsustainable consumption.

Of course, the obvious hole in this argument is that the numbers for the report are all based on U.K. stats. Could this proposal ever become a tenable solution in the larger, consumption-drunk United States, where long hours of work and monetary status are equated with success?

European countries also have the benefit of socialized healthcare, as well as a history of less consumer-driven lifestyles. In Germany, workers clock in 350 hours less per year than their American counterparts. In the United States, where the trend has been the opposite—we have actually been working increasingly more hours since 1973—the tide may be harder to turn. At this point, Americans spend an average of 8.8 hours a day in work-related activities, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. It’s all part of the work-spend-work mentality that pervades American culture.

But there are Americans who believe a shortened workweek is not only possible but imperative to healing the environment and creating social equity. Such thinkers include professor Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of Truth Wealth; Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff; and popular bloggers on pro-downshifting websites, such as Tammy Strobel at RowdyKittens.com and Everett Bogue at FarBeyondTheStars.com.

Bogue, who wrote an e-book called The Art of Being Minimalist: How to Stop Consuming and Start Living, argues that the shortened workweek (he thinks even 21 hours is too many) is a noble and reachable goal in an increasingly complicated, recession-ridden world. Bogue has blogged for the past year about leaving his day job at a major New York magazine in order to create a life that is centered around less drudge work and more time.

Since leaving full-time employment, he has built a successful online business and shortened his workweek by more than half. On his blog, Bogue talks about ways to spend time previously spent at work. Yoga, cooking at home and owning only approximately 75 personal items helps to keep expenses down. In his mid-twenties and childless, Bogue is lucky not to have many of the responsibilities of older folks, but he has plenty of college-loan debt and is adamant in his belief that anyone can work a shortened, passion-driven workweek if they want it badly enough.

“We as a society work too much. We drag ourselves to the office like work is a regularly scheduled program, but the reality is that it’s not,” says Bogue via email from his new home base of Oakland. “The 40-hour workweek was born in the industrial age, when people made widgets in factories. The modern world is a much different place than the one we used to work in, and smart individuals are discovering that time doesn’t equal productivity.”

Annie Leonard, host of the thunderously popular 20-minute film The Story of Stuff and one of Time magazine’s 2008 Heroes of the Environment, agrees that a shortened workweek could have a major positive effect of slowing our steadily quickening environmental and social catastrophe. In her latest book, which shares the same title as the film, Leonard says that with the huge increase in productivity that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, industrialized societies faced a choice to either keep producing the same amount of stuff as before and work less or to keep working the same number of hours and continue to produce as much as possible. Political, economic and even labor representatives chose to retain work hours at the maximum in order to keep the economy expanding.

Like a child’s birthday balloon, the economy can only stretch so far before it bursts. Far from an endlessly reproducing mechanism, the expansion of the economy depends on mass consumption and an eternally productive planet. The reality is that the earth only has so many renewable resources, and those are disappearing at a rate that looks more like oblivion than progress. A shortened workweek might contribute to a switch from the assumption that more is better to the more sustainable philosophy that less consumption, less economic inequity and less in general is more.

With a 12.6 percent unemployment rate in California (excluding the “discouraged” unemployed), now may be the right time to start thinking of alternative approaches to work. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, argues that spreading the work out among more people is a way to ensure more employment while lowering consumption levels. Promoting part-time work as a solvent way of being could be a start. Labor unions would need to get on board with this switch, and the minimum wage would need to be raised to ensure that those in lower wage jobs are able to making a living.

Is there a downside to switching to a 21-hour workweek? Michael Bomford, an Agriculture and Energy Fellow at the Santa Rosa&–based Post Carbon Institute, believes that there are a few kinks that would need to be worked out before something like this would be possible across the globe. While he agrees that perpetual growth is unsustainable and that we should be working less now that machines and products are becoming more efficient, he also sees potholes in the road.

“Although I’m sympathetic to their desire to see a more equitable distribution of work, particularly among people who want to work, I don’t want to see my 90-year-old grandfather working 26 hours so that I can work 26 hours,” says Bomford by phone from his Kentucky farm. “Different people have different skills and abilities, and there will always be considerable inequality in terms of how much work each individual is able to contribute to society.”

The conundrum of health insurance also poses a serious problem for implementation of this plan in the U.S. “Providing benefits is a very expensive part of employing a person,” Bomford says. “The cost of employing people would increase dramatically if you had to provide health benefits to each of these essentially part-time employees. On the other hand, our system is broken. We haven’t come up with a way to provide benefits to people who aren’t paid employees, and obviously the United Kingdom has a different system than we do, with the single-payer healthcare system. It allows a little more flexibility.” In the end though, Bomford does see the benefits to shrinking the amount of time spent in paid work.

“If we had more time—because less of our time is dedicated to paid employment—then it would free up time for us to live more sustainably. Generally, people who work more consume more. People need to consume more in order to give themselves more time for a long workday. If you have two working parents putting in 40-hour workweeks, that is essentially socially unsustainable. They need fast food, prepackaged ingredients, packaged cereals, dryers and two cars in order to maintain that kind of life. So we’re creating energy demand in order to maintain that intense work schedule.”

One possibility for broad and incremental change would be to study real models of shortened workweeks, including the mandatory four-day workweek, which the state of Utah employees experimented with in 2008&–2009, and the 35-hour workweek in France.

Websites like Shareable.net are working to provide information about how to build more resilient societies through sharing, sustainable living and alternate approaches to the work-spend conundrum. If we could get the whole health insurance mess worked out here, we might be able to move closer to making a less stressful and demanding workweek more of a floodlight than a distant glimmer.

Sonoma County Library