How working less leads to living more and why health insurance is our biggest enemy
By Leilani Clark
JUST BEFORE leaving my last full-time teaching gig in 2005, I shot off an email to the head of the charter school organization for which I worked explaining that I was leaving my position as a humanities teacher because I felt the job had become completely unsustainable. I could no longer work the 10- to 12-hour days that it took to get all of the work done while remaining sane and healthy. I had no time for my relationships or for my own creative projects, much less for healthy living.
Honestly, the work usually drove me straight to the liquor bottle on the weekends as a quick and easy way to escape the stress. I could not be a good teacher to my eighth-grade students if I didn't have the time to take care of myself. I never received a response to my email, but I never regretted sending it.
Rather than returning to full-time employment, I've spent the last five years whittling away at my consumption habits, learning to be more self-sufficient in my cooking and food growing and developing a love for bike riding. I have also spent the last few years justifying this decision to myself and others, staving off the guilt that arises when I see my husband get up each morning to go to his 40-plus-hour-a-week job while I sleep in and make my own schedule as a writer and very part-time online instructor. But a few recent books and studies have begun to make me feel that the ongoing process of shortening my workweek in a manner both sustainable and economically feasible is actually part of a 21st-century zeitgeist rather than an idler's cop-out.
In February of 2010, the New Economics Foundation (NEF)—an independent, left-oriented think tank based in the Britain that's dedicated to "improving quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issue"—released a multipage report titled "21 Hours." Available for free on the NEF website, the goal of the report is to provoke debate about the economic and environmental benefits of making a 21-hour workweek the norm, as opposed to the current 40-plus-hour week.
The NEF arrived at the number 21 by looking at British time-use surveys on how men and women of working age—which includes the employed, unemployed and those described as "economically inactive"—allocate their time over 24 hours. On average, according to the report, people spend 19.6 hours a week in paid work.
The report puts forward myriad paradigm-shifting theories and proposals concerning work, consumption and the possibilities for societal shift in the next few decades. Part of a greater shift toward sustainability, the idea of transforming work patterns as a way to push society out of its current economic and environmental morass comes not a moment too soon. As a gusher in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico spews tragic amounts of oil like a hemorrhaging wound, there has never been a better time to try and develop new ways of living, ways that no longer tax the earth—and its inhabitants—at such an unprecedented level.
The New 40
Identified as both a "thought experiment" and a call to action, the authors of the "21 Hours" report argue that our current rate of economic and market growth is unsustainable. While the accepted line of argument remains "Growth is good," in our looking-glass world it is the opposite that is actually true. According to the Global Footprint Network, we are currently using 140 percent of the earth's capacity.
If the current population and consumption trends continue, U.N. scenarios suggest that by the middle of the next decade we will need the equivalent of two earths to support us. We need to make a 90 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 if we want a healthy planet around for our children and grandchildren. And this is not a doomsday scenario; this is Basic Science 101.
The NEF argues that a shortened workweek is one of the absolute best ways to move toward a less carbon-dependent culture. If people are making less, they will buy less; if they buy less, pressure on the earth's resources lets up. Furthermore, if citizens spend less time finding and maintaining full-time paid work, they have more time to do the essential and virtually lost work of community-building, democratic participation, child-rearing and household maintenance. The use of alternative forms of transportation like cycling, bus-riding and car-sharing might become more alluring as people no longer have to rush to and from work.
In addition, with so many people living in poverty and hunger in the world, a shortened workweek could spread the jobs more evenly among those who would like to work but currently cannot find employment.
Another benefit, according to the NEF, would be a move toward a more gender-equitable society. In an ideal implementation of the plan, it would become easier to create a more equal distribution of work between the genders.
With environmental and economic catastrophe seemingly just around the corner, the shorter workweek may be one solution for creating a more resilient and socially just society while reducing nasty carbon emissions and unsustainable consumption. As the report states, "A 'normal' working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked 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."
Work Spend Work
Of course, the obvious hole in this argument is that the numbers for the report are all based on U.K. statistics. Could this proposal ever become a tenable solution in the larger, consumption-drunk United States, where long hours of work and monetary status are equated with success?
European countries also have the benefit of socialized health care, as well as a history of less consumer-driven lifestyles. In Germany, workers clock in 350 hours less per year than their American counterparts. In the United States, where the trend has been the opposite—we have actually been working increasingly more hours since 1973—the tide may be harder to turn. At this point, Americans spend an average of 8.8 hours a day in work-related activities, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. It's all part of the work-spend-work mentality that pervades American culture.
But there are Americans who believe a shortened workweek is not only possible but imperative to healing the environment and creating social equity. Such thinkers include professor Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of Truth Wealth; Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff; and popular bloggers on pro-downshifting websites, such as Tammy Strobel at RowdyKittens.com and Everett Bogue at FarBeyondTheStars.com.
Bogue, who wrote an e-book called The Art of Being Minimalist: How to Stop Consuming and Start Living, argues that the shortened workweek (he thinks even 21 hours is too many) is a noble and reachable goal in an increasingly complicated, recession-ridden world. Bogue has blogged for the past year about leaving his day job at a major New York magazine in order to create a life that centered around less drudge work and more time.
Since leaving full-time employment, he has built a successful online business and shortened his workweek by more than half. On his blog, Bogue talks about ways to spend time previously spent at work. Yoga, cooking at home and healthy living are all part of the package, and owning only approximately 75 personal items helps to keep expenses down.
In a time when all that is certain is uncertainty, Bogue's message of self-empowerment through downshifting has resonated with people looking for a way off the work-spend-work hamster wheel.
In his mid-20s and childless, Bogue is lucky not to have many of the responsibilities of older folks, but he has plenty of college-loan debt and is adamant in his belief that anyone can work a shortened, passion-driven workweek if they want it badly enough.
"We as a society work too much. We drag ourselves to the office like work is a regularly scheduled program, but the reality is that it's not," says Bogue via email from his new home base of Oakland. "The 40-hour workweek was born in the industrial age, when people made widgets in factories. The modern world is a much different place than the one we used to work in, and smart individuals are discovering that time doesn't equal productivity."
Myth of the Eternally Productive Planet
Bogue's argument does have a basis in historical fact. The number of hours spent working has risen with the rise of industrial capitalism. In the past 150 years, Americans have entered a work-spend-work cycle that some argue was purposefully constructed by those in the know, the political and economic leaders who wish to see the economy expand indefinitely and who most benefit from it. Could it be that American assumptions about "normal" work hours and beliefs that long work hours equals more success have all been constructed specifically to keep us in a cycle that rewards those at the top but not those at the bottom?
Annie Leonard, host of the thunderously popular 20-minute film The Story of Stuff and one of Time magazine's 2008 Heroes of the Environment, agrees that a shortened workweek could have a major positive effect of slowing our steadily quickening environmental and social catastrophe. In her latest book, which shares the same title as the film, Leonard says that with the huge increase in productivity that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, industrialized societies faced a choice to either keep producing the same amount of stuff as before and work less or to keep working the same number of hours and continue to produce as much as possible. Political, economic and even labor representatives chose to keep work hours at the maximum in order to keep the economy expanding.
Like a child's birthday balloon, the economy can only stretch so far before it bursts. Far from an endlessly reproducing mechanism, the expansion of the economy depends on mass consumption and an eternally productive planet. The reality is that the earth only has so many renewable resources, and those are disappearing at a rate that looks more like oblivion than progress. A shortened workweek might contribute to a switch from the assumption that more is better to the more sustainable philosophy that less consumption, less economic inequity and less in general is more.
With a 12.6 percent unemployment rate in California (excluding the "discouraged" unemployed), now may be the right time to start thinking of alternative approaches to work. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, argues that spreading the work out among more people is a way to ensure more employment while lowering consumption levels. Promoting part-time work as a solvent way of being could be a start. Labor unions would need to get on board with this switch and the minimum wage would need to be raised to ensure that those in lower wage jobs are able to making a living.
Sarah May Grunwald, a California ex-pat now settled in Italy, works as a freelance tour guide, a docent at the Vatican and a sommelier. She has also made a concerted effort to simplify her work schedule and cut down her hours, partly as a lifestyle choice and partly because a health condition prevents her from working comfortably full-time.
Grunwald works an average of three to four hours five days a week, which she says gives her plenty of time for hiking, household duties, seeing friends, quality time with her dogs and other hobbies. The pay per hour is excellent, providing her an opportunity to work less. Grunwald also makes sure to live simply and to save for dry times, since her work tends to be seasonal. While there are drawbacks to such a schedule—including the stress of not always having consistent work—Grunwald is happy with her choice to downshift.
"More than 20 hours a week would be next to impossible for me," she says from her home outside of Rome. "I have Crohn's disease, so I think I found the ideal job. I can work as much or as little I like."
She does point out that not having children helps, and of course there is the issue of health care.
"I have the benefit of living in a country with an excellent socialized health care system, so I don't have to worry about benefits or buying insurance," Grunwald says. "I don't have any benefits. I think this would not work for me in the United States."
The Health Care Hitch
To make the shortened workweek a reality, wages would have to be raised to accommodate fewer hours, and overtime would need to be discouraged. People might be rewarded for not taking their work home. Health insurance would have to be completely reconfigured so that employers wouldn't be penalized for providing insurance to those who work under 40 hours a week.
In addition, there would have to be a solid training system in place to prepare the population for the different jobs available. While all of these aspects might seem like overwhelming challenges, the NEF report argues that legalized slavery and disenfranchised women were both assumed to be incontrovertible realities. Now they seem preposterous.
So is there a downside to switching to a 21-hour workweek? Michael Bomford, an Agriculture and Energy Fellow at the Santa Rosa–based Post Carbon Institute, believes that there are a few kinks that would really need to be worked out before something like this would be possible across the globe. While he agrees that perpetual growth is unsustainable and that we should be working less with machines and products becoming more efficient, he also sees potholes in the road.
"Although I'm sympathetic to their desire to see a more equitable distribution of work, particularly among people who want to work, I don't want to see my 90-year-old grandfather working 26 hours so that I can work 26 hours," says Bomford by phone from his Kentucky farm. "Different people have different skills and abilities, and there will always be considerable inequality in terms of how much work each individual is able to contribute to society."
The conundrum of health insurance also poses a serious problem for implementation of this plan in the United States. Since coverage is usually tied to full-time employment, it is virtually impossible to work part-time and have insurance, too.
"Providing benefits is a very expensive part of employing a person," Bomford says. "The cost of employing people would increase dramatically if you had to provide health benefits to each of these essentially part-time employees. On the other hand, our system is broken. We haven't come up with a way to provide benefits to people who aren't paid employees, and obviously the United Kingdom has a different system than we do, with the single-payer health care system. It allows a little more flexibility."
In the end though, Bomford does see the benefits to shrinking the amount of time spent in paid work.
"If we had more time—because less of our time is dedicated to paid employment—then it would free up time for us to live more sustainably. Generally, people who work more consume more. People need to consume more in order to give themselves more time for a long workday. If you have two working parents putting in 40-hour workweeks, that is essentially socially unsustainable. They need fast food, prepackaged ingredients, packaged cereals, dryers and two cars in order to maintain that kind of life. So we're creating energy demand in order to maintain that intense work schedule."
While there are challenges to changing our thinking about work and consumption, writers like Bogue and Leonard propose alternate ways of approaching how we spend our time. One possibility for broad and incremental change would be to study real models of shortened workweeks, including the mandatory four-day workweek, which the state of Utah employees experimented with in 2008–2009, and the 35-hour workweek in France.
Websites like Shareable.net are working to provide information about how to build more resilient societies through sharing, sustainable living and alternate approaches to the work-spend conundrum. Now, if we could get the whole health insurance mess worked out here, we might be able to move closer to making a less stressful and demanding workweek more of a floodlight than a distant glimmer.
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