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Bookmark and ShareAnna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef.

The government wants to build a ‘Big Society’ at the same time as a imposing a very big squeeze on spending for public services.  This will not work unless spending is focused more sharply on preventing needs arising or intensifying ,and on supporting individuals and groups so that they can do more to help themselves and each other.

The danger is that the first victims of the squeeze will be the very things that are essential for preventing harm, improving well-being and encouraging self-help and mutual aid.  Examples include healthy and appetising school meals, child care services, open access to swimming and other sports, community meeting places, training and other resources for local groups, ‘social prescribing’ by GPs, out of school activities for young people, programmes to keep older people active and socially connected, more and better green spaces in urban areas, and much more.  Cuts in these areas will only push up demand for services in the longer run.

Read more about nef‘s take on the Big Society; why we think prevantative public services are valuable, especially for children; how welfare can be transformed to meet the economic and climate crises; and how co-production can improve the experience of service users and public servants.

Bookmark and ShareAnna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef.

Imagine a new ‘standard’ working week of 21 hours.  Not 35 hours, or a four-day week, but 21 hours or its equivalent spread across the calendar year.

How would it feel to wake up on a chilly February morning? More time in bed, more time with the kids, more time to read, see your mum, hang out with friends, repair the guttering, make music, fix lunch, walk in the park.  Whatever you need or want to do.

Economist John Maynard Keynes hoped that by 2000, we'd be working 15 hour weeks.

Outlandish? Well, it’s less radical than the vision of John Maynard Keynes. He imagined a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century, because he thought we’d no longer have to work long hours to satisfy our material needs.

His forecast was wrong, not least because our definition of material needs has grossly expanded. In fact, the ‘normal’ working week lengthened in the last decades of the 20th century, with two-adult households adding six hours a week to their combined paid workload.  Many of us work longer and harder to earn enough to buy what we need (or think we need), to keep or improve our place in the world, or simply to make ends meet.  Meanwhile, others have too little employment, or none at all.

But Keynes was right to envisage a need to think differently about how we use and value time.  In the 21st century, moving towards much shorter hours of paid employment could be a critical factor in heading off environmental, social and economic catastrophe.  In the developed world, most of us are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us.

Economic growth has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption.  So workers have borrowed to consume what they cannot afford and now the credit bubble has burst.  Politicians are urging us all to shop harder to help the economy recover and grow. Yet natural resources are critically depleted by high-rolling consumerism and the climate clock is ticking. While some of us accumulate more and more material goods, others have less and less of life’s essentials.

We have even managed in our increasingly unequal society to divvy up time as an unequal commodity. Under-employment as well as unemployment is prevalent in low-income groups. Nearly 2.5 million are currently unemployed. Nearly one million worked part-time in the third quarter of 2009, because they could not find a full-time job, a rise of 30,000 over the previous quarter and up 30 per cent since the 2008.

A more equal distribution of working time would have clear environmental benefits. Leading economists are turning their attention to how we can manage with little or no economic growth, on the ground that continuing growth in the developed world cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently or in time to avoid disastrous climate change. Tim Jackson, Peter Victor and others have identified shorter working hours as one way to reduce labour and output overall without intensifying hardship or widening inequalities: share out the total of paid work more evenly across the population.

A 21-hour working week is a long way from today’s standard of 40 hours or more, but not so far-fetched when you consider the infinitely varied ways in which we actually spend our time.  On average, people of working age spend 19.6 hours a week in paid employment and 20.4 hours in unpaid housework and childcare.  Of course these averages mask huge inequalities, both between women and men and between income groups – not only in how they use their time, but also in how far they can control it.  Bringing the standard nearer to the average could help to iron out these differences.

Moving towards a standard of 21 hours could help to redistribute unpaid as well as paid time – for example by making more jobs available for the unemployed and giving men more time to look after their children.

There’s nothing natural or inevitable about our nine-to-five, five-day week. It’s just a relic of the industrial revolution. It can be changed. When the state of Utah in the US introduced a four-day week for state employees (without reduced hours, but giving everyone a three-day weekend), more than half said they were more productive and three-quarters said they preferred the new arrangements. The State saved $4.1 million through reduced absenteeism and overtime and $1.4 million through reduced travel in state-owned vehicles; it reduced carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons, other greenhouse gases by 8,000 tons and petrol consumption by 744,000 gallons. 82 per cent of employees said they wanted the one-year experiment to continue.

We could get off the consumer treadmill and leave a smaller footprint on the earth.  We could spend less on energy-intensive ‘convenience’ items designed to save us time – from processed foods and household gadgets to cars and airline tickets. We’d have more time to care for friends and family, and to look after our own health.  We could leave employment and claim our pensions later, with a much gentler transition to retirement. We’d have more time to keep learning and take part in local activities. We might begin to reassess how we value different kinds of work, regardless of whether or how it is paid.  We might give a higher rating to relationships, pastimes and places that absorb less of our money and more of our time.

There could be benefits for business too, with more women in paid employment, more men leading rounded, balanced lives, less workplace stress and greater productivity hour for hour.  The driving force towards a prosperous economy would no longer be credit-fuelled consumerism, which has proved so destructive, but financial stability and good work distributed fairly across the population.

None of this will be easy to achieve. A lot of people will have to adjust to earning a lot less, but this has to be seen as part of a bigger transition, over a decade or more, that will involve a radical shift in values and expectations.  . Everything depends on having the right measures in place to ensure that work is fairly distributed, that everyone has enough to live on, that employers are encouraged to take on more staff, and that public attitudes change to support less materialist lifestyles and a revaluation of paid and unpaid time.  These are explored in more detail in our report, 21 Hours.

Social norms that seem to be firmly fixed can sometimes change quite suddenly.  Take, for example, attitudes towards slavery and votes for women, wearing seatbelts and crash helmets, not smoking in bars and restaurants.  The weight of public opinion can swing from antipathy to routine acceptance, usually when there’s a combination of new evidence, changing conditions, a sense of crisis and a strong campaign.  This proposal for a 21-hour working week is intended as a provocation, to stimulate debate and ideas.  It also reflects an urgent need to build a sustainable future.  We already have strong supporting evidence, changing conditions that demand a fresh approach and a profound sense of crisis.  The campaign starts here.

21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century by Anna Coote, Andrew Simms and Jane Franklin was published on Saturday 13 February 2010.

Bookmark and ShareAnna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef.

William Beveridge - a revolutionary for our time?

Britain’s welfare state can’t cope with three great dangers that face us today – deepening social divisions, accelerating climate change and imploding financial systems. William Beveridge said of 1942, when he launched his founding report, that it was a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history, a time for revolutions, not for patching”.  The same is true today, but the challenges are new.  We need a new social settlement to transform the way we live together and look after each other – a modern welfare system that is fit for the 21st century.

Through 60 years of peace and plenty, Britain has built a welfare state that many see as enviable.  But there are still widening inequalities.  Unemployment is rocketing. Income inequality is at its highest level since records began. The gap in life expectancy between those living in the poorest areas of England and the average is wider than 10 years ago. The UK ranks a pitiful 13th out of 22 European nations on combined measures of social and personal well-being.

An unequal and divided society can’t take the kind of concerted action that is needed to deal with climate change and the global credit crunch.  And these divisions will deepen unless action is taken to prevent the poorest from suffering most from global warming and economic recession.

We argue for radical change our new paper published last week, Green Well Fair: Three economies for social justice. A future welfare system shouldn’t rely on the market economy to keep on growing to fund more and better services.  Because growth is not inevitable, and unchecked growth damages the environment. Instead it must value and nurture two other economies that have so far been overlooked. These are the abundant human resources that underpin and shape society, and the fragile resources of the planet, on which all life depends.

It must harness all three economies – people, planet and markets – so that they work together to deliver sustainable social justice. By that we mean the fair and equitable distribution of social, environmental and material resources between people, countries and generations.

Green Well Fair sets out six steps towards sustainable social justice:

  • promote well-being for all, putting equality at the heart of social policy
  • give priority to preventing harm, to concentrate scarce resources on meeting unavoidable needs
  • grow the ‘core’ economy by valuing and nurturing human resources that are currently undervalued
  • make carbon work for social justice, so that measures to reduce carbon emissions help to narrow inequalities
  • make public services sustainable
  • measure success by valuing what matters in social, environmental and economic terms, for the medium and long term.

What could this mean in practice?  Here are some examples.

  1. Two for the price of one: invest in ways of preventing illness and reduce carbon at the same time – such as encouraging active travel and producing fresh, local food. Both will help to combat obesity and climate change.
  2. Welfare to green work: channel investment in welfare-to-work to boost green industries, to build up skills in home insulation and other ways of cutting carbon emissions, and to support low-carbon living.
  3. From patient records to people’s plans for well-being: redesign health services around cradle-to-grave health plans for every individual, focused on keeping people well, not just treating them when they are sick.
  4. Carebanks to pool and grow resources for older people: enable older people to join forces to help themselves and each other, using time as a measure of exchange.

Now, as in 1942, it is no time for patching’. Instead of emerging from the trauma of the war, we face the potential catastrophes of climate change and imploding global capitalism. Such crises provide an unparalleled opportunity to think afresh about social justice and to be ambitious in pursuing it. We can’t afford to miss that chance because all of our lives depend on it.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.