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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.
The Marmot report has made it clear – for better social wellbeing we must eradicate disparities in education, income and health.
Successive reviews and reports have consistently told us two things: that we live in an increasingly polarised society and that this is damaging to our social wellbeing. The latest – yesterday’s Marmot review – supports a widely held view that inequalities of health, education, income and opportunity are all inter-related, and that better education leads to longer, healthier lives, and educational attainment itself is affected by income inequality.
Sir Michael Marmot was commissioned to review health inequalities but his recommendations range from investments in early years to an increase in the minimum wage. This comes hot on the heels of the National Equality Panel report on income inequality and the launch of policy positions by all three political parties on the issue. Inequality is no longer an embarrassing legacy of old Labour; instead, all three parties are now falling over themselves to profess their concern. This raises an intriguing question: after decades of tolerating the rise and maintenance of high inequalities, do we now face the prospect of an election fought around the issue?
Social problems are often economic in their origin, and reforming the system itself is the most powerful policy tool that we have at our disposal. A truly preventative approach starts with the structures and institutions that shape our lives: the destabilising income inequalities, the spatial concentrations of unemployment and poverty, the focus on growth as a proxy for social welfare to the neglect of other outcomes.
Late last year we at the new economics foundation produced a report that looked at the economic case for investing in early years. We calculated that by 2030 savings of about £400bn could be made in return for big investments now in universal childcare, extended parental leave and an holistic suite of preventative services. The response from policy-makers and commentators was that it was “too ambitious”. It is a sobering thought that it is too ambitious for one of the world’s biggest economies to aim for outcomes for children similar to its less well off European neighbours.
Inequality is not inevitable. But in the absence of countervailing forces trends such as globalisation, changing demographics and family structure will increase it. Yet, other countries manage to counteract these forces, whether it’s childcare in Sweden, education in the Netherlands, or land redistribution in South Korea. Labour has of course tried (a bit), and it has identified many of the right points of intervention. The problem is that it either didn’t go far enough (not indexing the minimum wage to incomes) or it left key drivers untouched (industrial policy).
Tackling inequality, at least in the public imagination, is overly synonymous with redistribution through the tax and benefit system. Discussion of the forces that influence different wages is notably absent, which might suggest that people think that the pre-tax distribution of incomes is broadly speaking “fair”. But the fact that a senior banker can earn 4,400 times what a nursery worker earns is not fair and is not an accident. It is in opening up this debate and in helping to highlight the determinants of inequality that the Marmot report is so welcome. The research is in, the arguments have been won, now it is time to act on them.
Writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, Catherine Bennett is unconvinced that “it is the state’s business to meet those psychological needs” that the Young Foundation’s recent research has highlighted. She suggests that “since no nice person would want to set their face against general wellbeing”, using well-being as a political goal is utterly devoid of meaning. This inadvertently raises a crucial question: what is the overall goal of politics?
Economic growth is the most common headline measure of political success. Combating problems such as poor mental health or income inequality, although dismissed by Bennett, might also be candidates. In fact none of these pass muster in the role of ultimate outcome for societies. When examined closely, it becomes clear that they are all different means to the end of well-being: enabling people to experience their lives going well. As the economist Andrew Oswald has noted:
People have no innate interest in the money supply, inflation, growth, inequality, unemployment … Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier.
Aiming for well-being is not about seeking an “immediate surge in collective pleasure”, as Bennett puts it. It is about a life well lived, not short-term happiness or pleasure seeking. What we do is fundamental to how we feel, and research shows that strong connections to other people and engagement in meaningful activities are among the most important determinants of well-being. This understanding informs our work at nef, where we have demonstrated that well-being outcomes can be robustly and systematically measured through a framework of national accounts of well-being.
There is broad public support for well-being being the ultimate political goal. A 2006 poll for the BBC found that 81% of people supported the idea that the government’s prime objective should be the “greatest happiness” rather than the “greatest wealth”. Furthermore, a sense of well-being is itself a means to traditional policy ends, with proven links, for example, to longer life expectancy and improved health outcomes.
Bennett suggests that it would be “surreal” for policy initiatives to aim to improve well-being. But what is truly surreal is that public policy has often been antithetical to well-being – encouraging long work hours and personal debt, and engendering intense competition from tests at primary school onwards. The evidence shows that our current turbo-charged consumption levels are largely driven by competition for status – a zero-sum activity where for every winner there is a loser.
Focusing on social position through material goods leads to the inescapable treadmill of working longer and harder to buy ever more – at the cost both to well-being and the planet. While some less empathetic members of the public may, as Bennett says, “feel quite happy with current levels of brittleness, inequality and mental ill health”, this is cold comfort to those suffering at the sharp end of these problems. And as evidence from epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson has highlighted, we all suffer under greater levels of inequality, given its associations with crime, low social capital and a host of other undesirable outcomes. There is a clear role here for policy to discourage the excesses of these damaging behaviours.
Fortunately, the evidence from fields such as behavioural economics and positive psychology also points to what enhances experienced well-being. The “five ways to well-being“, distilled by nef from a 2008 government review of the latest scientific evidence in the field, identify well-being-enhancing activities in everyday life. Current policy, directed towards maximising hours spent in paid employment and failing to value non-market activities, hampers people’s ability to get involved in the sorts of community and voluntary activities that offer some of the best opportunities to connect with others, be physically active, take notice of what’s around us, learn new skills, and give. It is not the state’s business to impose such activities on us. But it does have a clear role in establishing the conditions that allow individuals to maximise their own well-being. This is the true yardstick by which political success should be measured.
The good news:
- An inventor has developed adjustable glasses which could bring better vision to a billion of the world’s poorest people: Josh Silver, a professor of physics at Oxford University has created glasses with lenses that can be “tuned” by the wearer using small knobs, eliminating the need for prescriptions or specialist equipment. Silver’s idea is stirring example of how simple technological interventions can sometimes be the most elegant. Small is beautiful after all.
- A campaign has been launched to encourage people in the rich world to donate 10% of their money to help the poorest people in the world. Once again proving that there are academics who venture beyond the ivory tower, moral philosopher Toby Ord (again, from Oxford University) has pledged to give away a third of his £30,000 a year salary this year, with 10% year on year after that. His new website – Giving What We Can – allows visitors to enter their post-tax earnings, to see where they rank in the global rich list, which is adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity. It then calculates the number of lives that could be saved or school hours bought with your donation, and suggests a handful of very effective and targeted aid agencies to support. Of course, at nef we believe that there won’t be a way out of global poverty unless we very quickly put a stop to climate change, and introduce fundamental changes to the global financial system. But working to change the economy shouldn’t stop us from donating to save lives here and now.
- There is still a chance of a climate deal at Copenhagen. Less than a day after Barack Obama announced that he didn’t think there was enough time to secure a global deal on climate change mitigation at the UN COP15 in Copenhagen, Chinese president Hu Jintao and Obama issued a joint statement promising to press for a deal next month.
The bad news:
- Peak oil is closer than we thought, due to deliberately distorted figures, according to a senior official at the International Energy Association. The Guardian reports that the whistleblower has accused the USA of forcing the IEA to “underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves”.
- The average global temperature is likely rise by 6°C by 2100 if no action is taken according to an international study from the Global Carbon Project. Mark Lynas, who compiled scientific research on this subject for his Royal Society prize-winning book Six Degrees, writes that amount of warming would “cause a mass extinction of almost all life and probably reduce humanity to a few struggling groups of embattled survivors clinging to life near the poles.”
- Lord Griffiths perpetuates the myth that inequality is somehow ‘good’ for us.The Conservative peer – who is also the vice-chair of investment bank Goldman Sachs – tried to justify the bonus culture of the City by telling an audience that “inequality is a way of achieving greater opportunity and prosperity for all”. Richard Wilkinson, of the Equality Trust, provided a rebuttal, while nef‘s own research in The Great Transition shows that inequality could cost the UK alone up to £4.5 trillion over the next forty years, because of the social problems it causes.
I am trying to make this a regular Friday thing…
The good news:
- The billions we currently spend on unemployment benefits could be used more effectively help deprived communities weather the recession. So says nef‘s latest report Benefits that work.
- Breaking up the banks is no longer a marginal idea: it seems that everyone from Andy Haldane at the Bank of England to Alistair Darling now thinks that breaking up the mega-banks would be sensible. nef called for this earlier in the year in our report I.O.U.K.
- Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong was ‘saved’ from a mugging by Boris Johnson . The Mayor of London just so happened to be cycling past as Franny was being intimidated by a group of teenagers wielding an iron bar. Saving a green activist while riding a bike has got to be the act of eco-friendly Good Samaritanism par excellence. Let’s hope Franny managed to get Boris to sign London up to 10:10.
The bad news:
- Climate change could lead to a new era of global insecurity, so say the top military figures who make up the Military Advisory Council at the Institute for Environmental Security in the Netherlands (via New Scientist).
- Ed Miliband has admitted that the chances of a global deal at COP15 in Copenhagen is increasingly unlikely. The Minister for Climate Change and Energy said that a full treaty could be up to a year away.
- Lord Griffiths perpetuates the myth that inequality is somehow ‘good’ for us. The Conservative peer – who is also the vice-chair of investment bank Goldman Sachs – tried to justify the bonus culture of the City by telling an audience that “inequality is a way of achieving greater opportunity and prosperity for all“. Richard Wilkinson, of the Equality Trust, provided a rebuttal, while nef‘s own research in The Great Transition shows that inequality could cost the UK alone up to £4.5 trillion over the next forty years, because of the social problems it causes.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
“Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” Can you imagine Peter Mandelson saying that to the CBI? Would Gordon Brown produce such a quip at the World Economic Forum? Even Barack Obama might have problems with this level of political lyricism. Progress might be the realisation of ambition, enterprise, or even dreams, but not utopias.
Utopianism tends to be a pejorative term these days. It’s associated with religious and political myths which we now might find naive and old-fashioned: be it the New Jerusalem of Christianity or the promised revolution of Marxism. The quotation from Wilde comes from his 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism‘, a political polemic with a curiously evangelical and redemptive tone.
We’ve witnessed too many failed or dangerous utopias to be taken in by such rhetoric anymore. How many of the 20th century’s worst atrocities started with a vision of a perfected world? And even when they haven’t ended in totalitarianism, utopian mindsets have collided with the wall of reality sooner or later. The global financial crisis of the last eighteen months has put paid to the neoliberal belief that history “ended” with the rise of free market capitalism.
Today we’re inclined to agree with the political philosopher John Gray, who writes that “utopia is the projection into the future of a model of a society that cannot be realized.”
And yet, somehow, I still have some sympathy with Wilde’s vision. Even once we accept the danger of utopianism and see through its mirages, we still need to chart a course for our societies to follow. We will always need some sort of compass to guide us.
The sociologist Stephen Lukes came up with the idea of a ‘concrete utopia’. Unlike John Gray’s definition, the concrete utopia is based on ‘the knowledge of a self-transforming present, not an ideal future’.
There is no doubt that we are currently in a ‘self-transforming present’. Thanks to a century and a half of industrialisation powered by fossil fuels, the world’s climate is changing – not somewhere else or at a future date, but right here, right now. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has shaken all economic and political orthodoxies. And as inequality has risen in developing countries, so too has social instability and unrest. If we do nothing about these things, the present will transform itself for the worse. nef has calculated the costs of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ until 2050: the UK will be faced with a £1.6 to £2.5 trillion bill for climate change, and a £4.5 trillion bill for social problems arising from income inequality.
In order to steer clear of these threats, we’ll need something like a concrete utopia. Our new report The Great Transition attempts to put in place some clear steps towards the kind of economy which works for people and the planet. The Great Transition is undoubtedly utopian in spirit: we call it ‘the tale of how things turned out right’. But its recommendations are based right here in the present moment. There are things we can do immediately to tackle climate change, restore economic stability and create a more equal human settlement.
For the concrete utopian, it isn’t enough just to draw utopia onto Wilde’s map. First, you have to do some scouting, to see if that country actually exists, to glimpse its shores, even from afar. At nef, we’ve been able to do so through the vast array of practical projects we’ve been involved with over the years. Timebanking, complementary currencies, new methods of participation and democracy, Transition Towns, our BizFizz project for budding entrepreneurs, co-productive public services and barter economies all constitute, as we said in our pamphlet From the Ashes of the Crash, part of a ‘sleeping architecture of a new, diverse and resilient local financial system’, human-scale and low-carbon. And it’s on these foundations that we’ll start to build our concrete utopia.
If you’d like to glimpse the beginnings of the Great Transition, and help make it a reality, make sure you head along to The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence, this Saturday 24 October, at the Bargehouse, South Bank, London.
We live in bittersweet times. On the one hand, we face multiple challenges, crises and threats, from climate change, economic instability, growing social inequalities and resource depletion. On the other, we’ve got a real chance for change in the way we think about economics, the things we value and what really matters to us as societies and communities. It’s with this bewildering and complex dynamic in mind that I bring you Friday’s over-simplistic Good News, Bad News.
This week, the good news is:
- Carbon emissions have decreased by 3% from 2008 levels, because of the recession. This is the sharpest fall in emissions for 30 years, according to the International Energy Association.
- E.on will not be building a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, at least for now. While pressure from climate campaigners may have had a impact, the company cited the recession as being the main reason for shelving the plans.
- Income inequality is now coming under the political radar of the Conservative Party. The painstakingly thorough work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett of the Equality Trust has shown that countries with less inequality are generally stronger, safer and happier places to live. nef held fringe events on inequality, featuring Dr. Wilkinson, at all three party conferences.
The bad news:
- Peak oil is still likely to hit us within the next ten years, despite recent discoveries of new fields in the Gulf of Mexico, says a new report from the UK Energy Research Centre.
- British people say they wouldn’t give up their flights to help the climate. A study conducted by Loughborough University found that fewer than 20% of people said they were trying to reduce the number of flights they took.
- The Conservative Party are putting corporate lobbyists up for parliamentary seats. An investigation by the Times newspaper found that over a fifth of the Conservative Party prospective parliamentary candidates most likely to gain seats in the next election are or have been involved in corporate lobbying or public relations.
Who really picks up the bill for climate change? (Hat-tip to Climate Safety)
It’s always the poorest who end up paying, even though they’ve enjoyed very few of the things which have contributed towards our burgeoning ecological debt.
Debates about population growth and climate change continue to make headlines, despite all the evidence which puts the blame squarely on rich world consumption levels, rather than fertility rates in the developing world. nef recently published The Consumption Explosion, a report which seeks to ‘defuse’ theories about population explosion by showing the ecological costs of trade and consumption in the rich world.
As the film makes clear, the carbon footprints of people in rich, industrialised nations – such as Germany, the UK or the US – dwarf those of developing nations. A man or woman living in the United States will, by 4am in the morning of 2 January, already have been responsible for carbon emissions equivalent to what someone in living in Tanzania would generate in an entire year. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4 January.
New Scientist‘s Fred Pearce, who contributed to The Consumption Explosion, writes:
the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.
Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.
And if you think you don’t fall into the richest 7% of the world, it’s always worth checking.