Since the 1950s, almost everything about work in the developed world has changed dramatically. Rapid technological advances continue to render many jobs obsolete. Globalization has shifted employment to parts of the world with the lowest costs and standards. Most households have gone from one income-earner to at least two. Women have fully integrated into the workforce, albeit often with less-than-equal opportunities, conditions and pay. A lot of our work is unnecessary and often destructive—depleting resources, destroying ecosystems, polluting air, water and soil and fuelling climate change.
Yet we’re still working the same or more hours later into life within the same outdated and destructive system, furiously producing, consuming and disposing on a wheel of endless growth and conspicuous consumption. The gap between rich and poor is widening and working people—and those who can’t find work—are falling further behind, crushed by growing debt, increased competition for scarce jobs and declining real wages and benefits.
Although unions deserve credit for many gains working people have enjoyed over the past century or more, they also merit some criticism. In the face of technological advances and globalization, unions have failed to fight for steadily reduced work hours, focusing instead on higher wages and better benefits—although lately it’s more fighting to prevent drastic cuts to jobs, wages and benefits.
Many people are tired, too stretched to become politically engaged or even to spend as much time with family and friends as they’d like, and the grinding consumer cycle doesn’t bring them real joy or fulfilment.
As with climate change, gradual reform could have forestalled the drastic actions now needed, but addressing the issue now will do far more good for a greater number of people than doing nothing—and it will become more difficult and costly the longer we put off necessary action.
It’s absurd that so many people still work eight hours a day, five days a week—or more—with only a few weeks’ vacation a year, often needing two incomes to support a household. Our economic system was developed when resources seemed plentiful if not inexhaustible, and physical infrastructure was lacking. We need an overhaul to meet today’s conditions rather than those that existed decades ago when we were unaware of many of the potential negative consequences of our actions.
Research points to many advantages of reforms such as reduced work hours and universal basic income. In Gothenburg, Sweden, workers at a care home for the elderly were put on a six-hour workday as part of a two-year controlled study. Although hiring 15 new employees to cover the workload drove costs up by about 22 percent, spending was reduced in areas like covering sick leave, which dropped by 10 per cent. Workers reported health improvements at rates 50 percent higher than workers at institutions with regular working hours. Patient care also improved. Women with children benefited substantially.
Many global warming impacts could also be lessened with small work-hour reductions, through shorter workweeks and increased vacation time, a 2013 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based think-tank, concluded.
“By itself, a combination of shorter workweeks and additional vacation which reduces average annual hours by just 0.5 percent per year would very likely mitigate one-quarter to one-half, if not more, of any warming which is not yet locked-in,” report author and economist David Rosnick said.
A four-day workweek (as David Suzuki Foundation staff enjoy) cuts pollution and emissions from commuting and, in many cases, reduces energy consumption. When Utah went to a four-day week for government employees in 2007, the state saved $1.8 million in energy costs alone. Fewer commutes led to an estimated reduction of more than 11,000 tonnes of CO2.
A better work-life balance also brings many individual and societal advantages. Family life is strengthened, people have more time for creative or educational pursuits, and happier, rested employees are more productive. As more people share in available jobs, social service costs go down and more people are able to contribute to economic prosperity.
A lot needs to be done to reform our economic systems and to address critical issues like pollution and climate change. Reducing work hours is one way to make substantial gains.
Science Matters is a weekly column on issues related to science and the environment from David Suzuki, written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.