13 February 2010

21 Hour Work Week

Reposted in full from
new economics foundation, 13 February 2010

A shorter working week is set to become the new norm, according to a report out this week from nef (the new economics foundation), the UK’s leading independent think tank.

Published today (Saturday, 13 February, 2010) the study, 21 hours, forecasts a major shift in the length of the formal working week as a consequence of dealing with key economic, social and environmental problems. And this can be seen as a positive opportunity, say the researchers, rather than a threat.

According to nef, there are several forces pushing us towards a shorter working week: lasting damage to the economy caused by the banking crisis, an increasingly divided society with too much over-work alongside too much unemployment, and an urgent need for deep cuts in environmentally damaging over-consumption. These combine with a growing interest in people spending more time producing and delivering a share of their own goods and services – from co-produced care and neighbourhood-based activities, to food, clothing and other necessities.

“So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. And our consumption habits are squandering the earth’s natural resources”, says Anna Coote, co-author of the report and Head of Social Policy at nef. “Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We’d have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours. And we could even become better employees: less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive. It is time to break the power of the old industrial clock, take back our lives and work for a sustainable future.”

If we are to seize these opportunities, says nef, the inevitable consequence is a much shorter standard working week, with 21 hours as the goal. The report shows that:

* Many people work longer hours than 30 years ago. Since 1981 two-adult households have added six hours – nearly a whole working day – to their combined weekly workload.

* Today, nearly 2.5 million people can’t find jobs. Cutting labour to save money without changing working hours means some are burdened with overwork while others lose their livelihoods.

* As a result of this growing inequality in working time, the unpaid components of life are suffering. Family life, neighbourhood networks, time with children and quality of life for older people are all diminished, with painful results for society that sometimes get lumped together and lamented as ‘Broken Britain’.

The authors of 21 hours argue that a much shorter working week could help to tackle a range of urgent and closely related problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life. It would enable many more people to join the workforce and allow for measures to reduce damaging levels of inequality.

Andrew Simms, co-author of the report and Policy Director at nef said: “The last two years revealed many to be consuming well beyond our economic means and beyond the limits of the natural environment, yet in ways that also fail to improve our well-being. Meanwhile many others suffer poverty and hunger. Our research shows that moving to a shorter working week could be the only way left untried to square this seemingly impossible circle. A cultural shift will throw up real challenges, but there could also be massive benefits for our economy, our quality of life and our planet. After all, hands up who wouldn’t like a four day weekend?”

The report examines the case for a radical re-think of what most people regard as immutable: a nine-to-five, five-day working week. Yet it is just a relic of the industrial revolution. John Maynard Keynes realised that there was nothing inevitable about it. In the 1930s, he envisaged that by the beginning of the 21st century, we would be working only 15 hours a week, having gained ‘freedom from pressing economic cares’. As the world struggles to cope with a range of current crises, the prospect of a 21 hour working week could be a silver lining to the gathering clouds.

Key findings and proposals

The study demonstrates that working just 21 hours a week – or the equivalent spread over a calendar year – could bring benefits across a range of areas:

* Healing the rifts in divided Britain: A 21-hour working week could help distribute paid work more evenly across the population, reducing ill-being associated with unemployment, long working hours and too little control over time. It would make it possible for paid and unpaid work to be distributed more equally between women and men; for parents to spend more time with their children – and to spend that time differently; for people to delay retirement if they wanted to, and to have more time to care for others, to participate in local activities and to do other things of their choosing. As work gets redistributed, incomes will become more equal, thus reducing the vast range of social problems associated with inequality.

* Low carbon, high well-being living: With a 21-hour working week, some people would find themselves earning less, but with a lot more time on their hands. This means that instead of relying on consumer goods – many of which are currently purchased for the sake of convenience in a busy life – people will be able to start doing things for themselves: growing their own food and cooking it rather than buying ready-meals, walking and cycling rather than using motorised transport, mending and repairing things that break rather than throwing them away. Living life at a slower pace, with more time to do everyday tasks, would cut carbon emissions and improve life satisfaction. A more egalitarian culture would also reduce the need for conspicuous consumption driven by people’s anxiety about where they stand in the social pecking order.

* New levels of civic engagement: It takes time to be an active citizen in a democracy. We need time to learn about political issues, get involved in decision-making and join and support political parties. Spending fewer hours at work would allow people to spend more time as active citizens in their local community.

* A robust and prosperous economy: In the wake of the financial crisis, the economy must start serving the needs of society, within the limits of the natural environment. With a 21-hour working week, businesses would benefit from more women entering the workforce, and from men living more rounded, balanced lives. Stress would also be reduced because employees would no longer need to juggle paid-employment with home-based responsibilities and family commitments. There is evidence that people who work shorter hours are more productive, hour for hour. And the 21 hours plan would put an end to one of the main causes of the credit crunch – the consumer debt bubble – by moving from an economy based on consumerism and economic growth, to one based around stability, resilience and adaptability.

* More time to care and work in the home: If the average time spent on housework and care for children and adults in 2005 in Britain were given a monetary value, based on the national minimum wage (then £4.85 an hour), it would together be worth almost £253.7 billion, equivalent to 21 per cent of the British Gross Domestic Product in that year. By moving towards a 21-hour week, unpaid care and housework would be seen as equally valued and important as paid employment, and men could take a more equal share of these home-based tasks.

* Stronger public services: Because of the large budget deficit and environmental constraints on economic growth, public services will need to learn to manage with much less money. One way to do this is to make more and better use of human resources - all the relationships, knowledge and skills that people have in abundance - to supplement public funds. With a 21 hour working week, people will have more time to care for each other, spend time with children children, keep healthy, and contribute to neighbourhood activities They will become ‘co-producers’ of public services, in active and equal partnership with professionals and other public sector workers.

The shift to a 21-hour working week would eventually bring these benefits. But there are big short-term challenges that need to be anticipated. The report outlines a range of measures to make the transition as easy as possible, including:

* Active training to combat skills shortages and to help long-term unemployed return to the labour force.

* Reform National Insurance so that costs to the employer are accrued in relation to the number of hours worked, not by the number of employees on the books.

* Discouraging overtime by rewarding employers for taking on new staff when more work needs to be done.

* Making earnings more equal through a higher minimum wage and restraints on top pay.

* Standardisation with flexibility building on the EU Working Time Directive, regulation would be introduced to standardise working hours while also allowing for as much flexibility as possible. This would allow for variations around the 21 hour model, include job sharing, school term shifts, extended care leave and sabbaticals.


  1. I would just add that one of the parts of this revolution should be to redefine 'work'. It is not a question of doing your work and then having more leisure. For many adults the nonpaid hours are heavy work too, just not paid. Care of young children is some of the most exhausting effort a person ever puts in and for this to be viewed as unproductive in an economy is quite illogical. Someone has to raise the young, care of the sick, handicapped, elderly and dying. So I would simply add that we must move into third wave feminist definitions, expand our tax and legal world view and notice what for too long we ignored. Those whose work is unpaid are often anchoring the economy and they also are 'working'. We need to do as all member United nations voted to do in 1997 at Bejing, value unpaid work for the 1/3 of the GDP that it is.
    We need tax plans, pension plans and social policy to recognize that just because you are not being paid does not mean you are not working. It is not about 'work-family' balance but 'career- family 'balance.

  2. Couldn't agree more Beverley! nef [and others] have also done work in this area [eg. http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/co-production]. This 21 hours report is looking at 'unhinging' our acceptance of/attachment to 9-5 paid work - I wonder how different society would be if we freed up some of those hours that have been 'privatised' into the paid work sector for things like caring for elders and youngsters? Community work? I personally would love to work four days a week so I could involve myself more in other activities, and while I am fortunate to be in a work environment that offers flexible work practices, what that typically means is then cramming five days's work into four! Hardly worth the day off when you spend one of your four days 'catching up' - but if we *all* worked the same days...and could attach a value to that work which is currently invisible to the monetised work economy.


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