21 hours

Most debate on the Left about routes out of the crisis have been to do with the conventional use of national government / state mechanisms – such as tax raids, more interventionist use of fiscal policy or heavier use of regulation to increase wages and reduce profits. None of these grapples with the constant productivity-unemployment spiral of capitalism.

A more radical idea that does, is nef’s  21 hours campaign to distribute the work and hence the income. The practicalities of engineering this are an obvious issue, but I’m sympathetic.

One of nef’s arguments is that working longer hours makes us unhappy. I’m not so sure about this. But that’s just conjecture, which makes the recent decision to measure wellbeing worthwhile, if it can give us handy data for thinking about policies like this. One statistic from the recent release of data from the survey was that only 25% of people are  unhappy with the number of working hours they do. As more research is done, it will be interesting to see how this breaks down – the likelihood has to be that lower income earners are less satisfied? And we’re not sure if this satisfaction is to do with the income that the hours of work generate (surely not the case for many at the moment?) or the satisfaction that comes from work itself.

The main problem with the 21 hours idea I can see is that it may well be that a large chunk of time taken up by work may actually be a preference people have, given choice and given the right type of work. Perhaps we don’t, after all, hanker after a better work / life balance, with more down time? Indeed, the best option of all is when work / leisure become virtually indistinguishable. Keynes famous dictum that we would only be working 15 hours a week by now did not actually turn out wrong – it is just that the distribution of that leisure is highly skewed, with an increasing number of the ‘creative class’ in occupations that are difficult to distinguish from leisure.

Not only that, but these lovely jobs are more valued, better paid  and require higher levels of education. If that’s the case, resistance to a 21 hour working week will come from both people who need the hours because the hourly rate is so low, and by top earners because they like the fulfillment that comes from full-time engagement in work that allows them to develop expertise and professional standing.

Perhaps the most sensible way forward would be to look at ways to bring down the barriers to people working less hours, and see what happens. This would include all the costs linked to employing someone – the separate taxation and pension contributions which become progressively more expensive with each extra worker.

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