InBox : 21 hours and counting

Suppose the ‘normal’ working week lasted for 21 hours. Not 35 hours, not even four days, but 21 hours. It’s flexible and variable, but it’s normal and generally expected, by government, employers, trade unions and most public opinion.
That’s the radical call from nef (the new economics foundation), London-based registered charity which describes itself as an independent “think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being”.
In its recent paper ‘21 hours: Why shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century’, nef is talking specifically about Britain. But much of its thinking could apply equally elsewhere.
The report says move towards 21 hours is essential if society is to achieve what nef lists as three vitally important goals: decarbonised economy not dependent on infinite growth; social justice and well-being for all; and sustainable environment.
“Moving towards much shorter hours of paid work offers new route out of the multiple crises we face today,” says the report. “Many of us are consuming well beyond our economic means and well beyond the limits of the natural environment, yet in ways that fail to improve our well-being – and meanwhile many others suffer poverty and hunger.”
The report goes on to say that ‘normal’ 21-hour working week could help address series of interlinked problems including “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”.
Why pick 21 hours as new norm? “Twenty-one hours is close to the average that people of working age in Britain spend in paid work,” notes the report, “and just little more than the average spent in unpaid work.”
Nef – which tags itself as an organisation that views economics “as if people and the planet mattered” – argues that there’s nothing ‘natural or inevitable’ about what is considered ‘normal’ today. “Time, like work, has become commodified – recent legacy of industrial capitalism,” it says, and goes on to state that the logic of industrial time is out of step with today’s conditions.
The ‘21 hours’ report details experiments with shorter working hours – including the three-day week in the UK back in the 1970s, France’s 35-hour working week and the four-day week in Utah in the US. It examines how today’s notions of ‘normal’ working hours has emerged and explains why move towards 21 hours could help meet current challenges. Finally, it highlights problems that might arise and how these could be addressed.
Nef backs up its ideas with plentiful research and rather than couch its suggestions as dogmatically fixed ideas, suggests they form the beginning of national debate.
As the report says, “Let’s be clear: there’ll be no time police roaming the call centres and coffee bars. We’re not proposing sudden or imposed change on this scale. We are inviting you to take part in thought experiment.”
Nef points out that there are many past examples of shifts in ‘apparently intractable’ social norms: ‘attitudes to the slave trade and votes for women, wearing seatbelts and crash-helmets, and not smoking in public places’.
“The weight of public opinion can shift quite suddenly from antipathy to approval as result of new evidence, strong campaigning, and changing circumstances, including sense of crisis.”
The ‘21 hours’ report forms part of nef’s over-arching thinking around what it calls “the great transition” to sustainable future. As it states in the opening pages of report by that name: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in finite world is either madman or an economist – Kenneth Boulding, economist.” M
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