The conversation around the future of work is often about the inevitability of its dominance, but what if we could make working work for us? New ideas, explored here by Will Stronge of Autonomy, a think tank for the future of work, are emerging about the implications of a shorter working week. More space to think, play, learn at leisure and reimagine our time could have exponential benefits in all areas.
Our current political moment is defined by a state of paralysis. By refusing to face the reality of a broken economic model, reactionary forces are driving us towards a future based on exclusion, continued deregulation and the scrapping of workers’ rights. Instead of conceding to this “inevitable” race to the bottom, progressive forces of all kinds need to meet the crises of the 21st century head-on by putting forward proposals that tangibly improve people’s lives.
As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated in the US with the green new deal, fresh proposals can change political and economic narratives so as to embrace collective opportunity, potentially avert catastrophe and move us towards sustainable futures. What will make up our “new deal” here in the UK? A new report by Autonomy – a thinktank of which I am co-director – argues that a shorter working week should be a central pillar of our economic future.
driving us towards a future based on exclusion, continued deregulation and the scrapping of workers’ rights
Calls for a shorter working week have gathered pace in recent years, with the TUC, the Green party, large and small unions and now the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, joining the chorus. Such a demand is no doubt due to the extent to which work is increasingly consuming every aspect of our lives. From commuting, networking and checking emails on our “days off”, to the second shift of housework that a disproportionate amount of women have to take on when they get home from their job – it’s increasingly difficult to know when the working week starts and ends. Taking into account the high levels of unpaid overtime we endure, we are on balance working longer days, for stagnant wages and, with state pensions receding, for larger parts of our adult lives.
The report undermines two commonly held myths: that working longer hours necessarily equals greater productivity, and that work is necessarily good for your health. Some of the most productive economies in the world work far fewer hours collectively than the average UK worker. Strategies for increasing productivity must face the reality that productivity relies not just on the sheer number of hours put in, but on the wellbeing and overall health of the workforce – as well as on the level of investment in labour-saving technology.
it’s increasingly difficult to know when the working week starts and ends
Here, the evidence is stark: heavy workloads, as well as work-related stress and anxiety, are costing our public services as well as private companies millions each year, with one in four of all sick days being lost as a direct result of workload pressures. In the report we draw on various case studies that demonstrate that shorter working weeks (and greater worker control over working time) can mean fewer sick absences, fewer in-work accidents and higher motivation on the job. Working fewer hours can be good for business too, and could relieve some strain on our public health services.
To move our economy in a positive direction, the report’s policy proposals offer a specific direction to achieve a progressive reduction in working time. We suggest using the public sector as an innovator in adopting a shorter working week without a reduction of pay. A shorter working week in the public sector would bolster staff wellbeing and productivity, while helping to retain staff and make these jobs more attractive to applicants. We also recommend giving workers new rights: for example, employees should have the option of taking any raises in the form of time as well as money, and flexibility (and security) of hours should be a standard choice for workers, letting them decide what balance of work and free time is best for them.
flexibility of hours should be a standard choice for workers, letting them decide what balance of work and free time is best
At a national scale, the report also advocates establishing a Ministry of Labour that would oversee the transition to a shorter working week, helping firms invest in labour-saving technologies through subsidies, and installing sectoral agreements between employers and unions that ensure that this automation tech can save workers time while retaining wage levels. With managed automation, workers would not have to shoulder the burden of productivity by themselves.
Sceptics will claim that these policies are unrealistic and would make the UK economy uncompetitive in a globalised economy. But let us remind ourselves that the present system isn’t working for the vast majority of people, and that the crisis of work is set to deepen as our environment buckles under a carbon-intensive economy, and as new technology impoverishes the labour market. The question is therefore not, can we afford this new deal for workers?, the question is rather, can we afford to not enact these changes?
the Wellcome Trust has just announced plans to trial a four-day week (without a loss in pay)
The future is also, in part, already here: shorter working week practices are increasingly being adopted by businesses in the UK today. Following many smaller firms – in Cardiff, London, Glasgow and elsewhere – the Wellcome Trust has just announced plans to trial a four-day week (without a loss in pay) this year, possibly making it the largest company to do so anywhere. Autonomy has launched its own consultancy service that helps oversee and implement reduced working week trials for small to medium-sized businesses: forward-thinking employers are waking up to the benefits of happier, less overworked workforces.
If Britain is to truly take back control we must first of all recognise that our political discontent must be redirected towards fixing our broken economic system. A shorter working week can be a key part of a new strategy that focuses on putting democracy, communities and the environment at the core of its political strategy. Alongside alternative models of ownership and an updated welfare state buttressed by a guaranteed income, a shorter working week should be understood as part of an emerging economic vision that attempts to meet the challenges of the 21st century head-on.