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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.
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.
Tesco’s spokesman Lucy Neville-Rolfe claims that the government’s new competition test will cost 25,000 jobs over the next decade. This is highly misleading, and not just because Tesco are now firmly in the anti-competition camp. Actually, as most people have known since Adam Smith, more competition usually means more jobs.
What this nonsense seeks to avoid is the truth which has devastated so many local economies over the past decade – some retail developers build the local economy; some corrode them.
It is highly misleading to suggest that all Tesco developers create jobs, when research suggests that most big supermarket developments are net destroyers of jobs. It’s as if Lucy Neville-Rolfe and her kind are able to add, but are blind when it comes to subtracting. The jobs in a new Tesco have to be offset against those which disappear as a result.
Local authorities need to do much more to distinguish between new stores which will be genuine anchors – which will bring in more customers to the local high street, and increase the money that stays circulating in the local economy – and those which won’t.
Sadly, many Tesco stores are not actually providing anchors to the surrounding shops. They are intending to compete with them and, since the big four supermarkets are semi-monopolies – which have huge power over suppliers – they will tend to drive out any local competition. Companies which, like Tesco, intend to compete in nearly every local market will rarely be effective anchors.
If you wonder why so many of our local economies have been hollowed out, here is the main reason: we have been using wealth destroyers as anchor stores.
So next time someone like Lucy Neville-Rolfe talks about the jobs that are not being created because someone has had the temerity to put some mild block in their path, ask them to do some proper arithmetic.
With a government decision expected any day now, the debate about the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport is going right to the wire. As activists set up their picnic rugs in the Departures Lounge to protest the damage that the expansion would do to the local community, to quality of life in London and – most dramatically – to the world’s climate systems, the backlash from pro-expansionists has begun.
There are plenty of arguments voiced loudly across the press, so let’s just pick two of them. The first is the economic argument. Business leaders are currently urging ministers to approve the plans to expand Heathrow on the grounds that a new runway is vital if Britain wants to remain competitive, especially when the country is facing a recession if not depression. Businesses in London, they say, will suffer if the airport is improved and enlarged. The second argument is more of a class thing. It hasn’t escaped notice that the some of the anti-aviation protestors have university degrees from places like the University of Cambridge. This has prompted a glut of name-calling: activists from Plane Stupid and Greenpeace have been branded “middle-class militants“, “agitated bourgeois insiders“, the “bolshie Barbour brigade” and “upper crusties.” Because they’re posh – the argument goes – they don’t realise the impact that their demands will have on ordinary people who just want to take a holiday in the sun. According to Times columnist and spiked editor Mick Hume, the activists who blockaded Stansted Airport are “green meanies who pray that the recession makes us too poor to travel“.
Two recent nef reports address these arguments directly. In Plane Truths, a report nef produced with the World Development Movement in September last year, we examined the economic case for airport expansion. WDM has calculated that £10.4 billion was lost to the Exchequer in 2007 as the result of tax exemptions for the airline industry on things like fuel and VAT. To put this in perspective, this is double the amount of money needed to insulate the whole of Britain’s housing stock. It’s 120 times more than the amount of money which the government currently spends on the research and development of renewable energy technology. What’s more, the rise of cheap flights has benefitted the rich, not the poor. Plane Truths undermined the claim that budget airlines have democratised travel, making it easier for people with less money to fly more. Research at a London airport showed that in 2005, people from the highest soci0-economic groups took 40% of all low-cost flights, even though they make up only 24% of the population. People with the lowest incomes fly the least – only 7.7% of all low-cost flights are taken by people from these groups, even though they account for 32% of the population. Flying remains a perogative of economic elites, not an opportunity for the poor as is so often claimed.
And, as our latest report Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty shows, it is the poorest people in the UK who will be worst affected by climate change. Because people on low-incomes tend to have poorer health and worse housing conditions, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding which will lead to an increase in diseases and will damage houses. So taking action to stop climate change won’t punish the working class: if done correctly, it could act as a catalyst for new jobs and lead to improved housing and better public transport.
The class argument collapses even further when you consider just how much damage climate change will wreak on the livelihoods of people living in the developing world. If Mick Hume and others were genuinely concerned about the world’s working class, they’d understand that it’s the poorest people in the global south who will feel the brunt of climate change. For example, a 2006 study of 4,000 extreme weather events between 1980 and 2002, found that the poor, and rural people in poor countries suffered death, homelessness and displacement from climate-related disasters to orders of magnitude ranging from 10 to 100 times that of wealthier countries. nef‘s own analysis of the impact of climate change on developing nations can be found in our Up in Smoke reports.
Other pro-expansionists will claim that aviation will bring economic growth to developing nations, our research in Plane Truths found that most of the money spent by tourists in popular destinations such as the Maldives, Kenya and the Dominican Republic ends up in the pockets of multinational hotel chains and tour operators rather than to the local economy. As much as 75p from every pound.
We need a Green New Deal to revive the economy, not more transportation dependent on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. So as the arguments in favour of airport expansion crumble, and the threat of runaway climate change looms ever closer, we need to take urgent action to stop the expansion of Heathrow, of Stansted, of any other airport. Today, Greenpeace, along with impressionist Alasdair McGowen, actor Emma Thompson and former editor of the Ecologist Zac Goldsmith, have bought a field right in the middle of the proposed third runway site at Heathrow. There can only be four signatures on the deeds, and hence only four legal owners of the land, but thousands more can sign up as beneficiary owners. Greenpeace is offering you a stake in plot for free. Yesterday, 5,000 people signed up, including George Monbiot and John McDonnell MP. Adding your name takes 30 seconds. Win the battle, and we all stand to benefit.
Another busy week for the Green New Deal as Japan announces plans to create “millions” of jobs in the green technology sector. Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito told reporters that he had received orders from Japan’s Prime Minister to “draft a Green New Deal plan”. More on this at Bloomberg.
In the US, Barack Obama has given his first public address after being elected in November. Last Thursday he revealed some of his plans to help the ailing American economy, including several hints of a Green New Deal:
“To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills. In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced – jobs building solar panels and wind turbines; constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings; and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain.”
Closer to home, some founder members of the Green New Deal Group had a letter in the Guardian last week about the inadequacy of Gordon Brown’s action on green jobs thus far. And today, leading environmentalists – including nef‘s Andrew Simms – have accused the government of destroying thousands of job opportunities by failing to support low carbon technology with subsidies.
The reality is that action on climate change is crucial if we are to weather the recession. A report published by nef today on behalf of a new coalition of environment and social justice NGOs argues that substantial green investment would combat the downturn and lift thousands of people in the UK out of poverty. The poorest people in this country will suffer hardest from the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding. But if we take intelligent action now to cut our carbon emissions, there could be benefits to people on low-incomes. Re-skilling for green jobs would tackle unemployment, home insulation programmes would fight fuel poverty, and improvements to low-carbon public transport would help those without cars.
The report, Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty is available to download for free from the nef website.
Results may not have been as bad as expected but still made for dismal reading in last week’s OECD report on inequality. At a time when the rewards of the rich are being called sharply into question, the UK still has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world and social mobility is static. The rate at which inequality has widened is slowing, which is not the same as the gap narrowing. What we already knew has been confirmed: the proceeds of the global economic boom that is now unravelling have gone disproportionately to the already wealthy.
Any equalisation of incomes, however small, is to be welcomed but the media coverage of this missed the most salient point of the report: the gap between rich and poor has grown in more than three-quarters of all OECD countries over the past two decades. Have we and our media become so complacent with wealth accumulation in the hands of the few that this is considered positive, or are we just desperate for some good news?