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Anna Coote and the 4-day working week

Jonathan Dawson

Jonathan Dawson teaches Sustainable Economics, Sustainability MastersAnna Coote is a woman on a mission.  Yes, the Head of Social Policy at the new economics foundation wants to see the introduction of a 30-hour, 4-day working week, as she explained at the most recent talk in the Adventures in the New Economics series jointly hosted by Schumacher College and Transition Town Totnes.  She even goes so far as to locate the campaign in the lineage of the abolition of slavery, the extension of the suffrage to women and the civil rights movement.

First reactions insist the case is being overstated.  But then, the layers of argument begin persuasively to unfold.  There have been a number of experiments with a shorter working week that suggest that productivity drops after around 30 hours per worker per week. Indeed, statistical evidence provides some support for a positive correlation between shorter working weeks and higher GDP; low-working hours Denmark and Norway are significantly wealthier in per capita GDP terms than high-hours United States, which has a per capita GDP similar to that of the Netherlands whose workers spend only two-thirds as long in the workplace.

A drop in working hours would allow people to spend more time in their homes and communities, relaxing, de-stressing, participating in community activities and enabling a greater sharing of childcare and other household work that falls so heavily on women at present.  A greater sharing of work across society would result, with increased work equity between men and women, young and old, employed and unemployed. 

The financial and ecological costs of commuting would drop and the move would be likely to erode the consumerist ethic as people found greater satisfaction in engaging with their families and communities.

Moreover, the switch to a shorter working week need not entail a drop in incomes, as productivity gains – or at least a part of them – would increasingly be translated into enhanced time rather than income.   This is the direction of travel in any case, at least within the European context; both Germany and France have seen productivity increases since 1980 translated into a drop of around 20 per cent in working hours. The change in mindset over the last few decades in parts of Europe is encapsulated in the observation that in Denmark, working late at the office is seen as a sign of failure!

Anna is insistent that this proposal is not a ‘silver bullet’, however it does tick a lot of boxes!  Once again, one is left with the strong impression that the anglo-Saxon model of capitalism is way behind the curve in terms of generating an economy in service to promoting the welfare of its citizens.  This proposal is as good a place as any to start in reversing that.

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