A New Approach to Work Hours (from UNEP Green Jobs report)

Industrial economies are extraordinarily productive—meaning that the same quantity of output can be produced with less and less human work. In principle, this can translate into either of two objectives: raising wages (in line with productivity) while holding working hours constant, or providing greater leisure time while holding income from wages constant. In practice, it has mostly been the former. Most people have been locked into a “work-and-spend” pattern.

Since the rise of mass industrialization in the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between employers and unions over working hours. Employees have struggled for less work time—in the form of shortened workdays or weeks, extended vacation time, earlier retirement, or paid leave. These efforts were primarily motivated by a desire to improve the quality of life and to create more jobs. While environmental issues have not played a central role, channeling productivity gains toward more leisure time instead of higher wages that can translate into ever rising consumption also increasingly makes sense from an ecological perspective.

It took close to a century to arrive at the 40-hour workweek in most industrial countries. Most employers have been very reluctant to agree to more reductions, and a shift in the employer/union balance of power, with waning union strength and rising pressure from globalization, has made further change difficult. By and large, a full-time job at something like 40 hours per week is still considered the norm for anyone wanting to be considered eligible for employment with career advancement opportunities.

But the discussion has shifted from fixed weekly hours to introducing greater flexibility, with employers and employees promoting competing notions and interests. Employers are seeking the ability to turn the spigot of labor supply on and off according to fluctuations in the demand for their products. Employee demands center on more individual options to accommodate personal and family needs and to achieve greater “time sovereignty.” Americans are increasingly working longer hours than Europeans. Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese work some of the longest hours anywhere in the industrialized world. And of course, many people in the world feel compelled to work long hours simply to make ends meet. But several promising approaches to work time have emerged in Europe. These may form the basis for new concepts of how to better share available work.

The discussion about work-time reductions has progressed in starts and fits and remains controversial. Proponents have principally been interested in the potential benefits that such initiatives would bring with regard to reduced unemployment and gains in quality of life. But this is also an issue that relates to environmental challenges. If the work-and-spend pattern can be broken, and if reduced work hours still allow people to make ends meet — admittedly big “ifs” — then the environmentally destructive impacts of consumerism could be reduced. At the same time, these are issues that will remain applicable only to a portion of humanity. For the majority that struggles to escape poverty, long work hours are, at least for the time being, an inescapable reality.

Certainly, a large and sudden decline in consumer spending would likely send the world economy—premised on endless growth—into a tailspin and cause major unemployment. But moving toward a less consumptive economy more gradually and deliberately would allow time to reorient how the economy functions, giving companies and employees an opportunity to adjust. Smoothing a transition will be a series of investments and technological innovations to accomplish the shift toward sustainability. Promoting renewable energy sources; expanding public transit systems; replacing inefficient machinery, equipment, buildings, and vehicles with far more efficient models; redesigning products for durability—all of these activities amount in effect to an ecological stimulus program for the economy.

It is crucial to retool not only the economy, but also economic thought. Right now, economic actors are primed to respond to quantitative growth signals. The concept of the gross domestic product, in which all economic activities are lumped together whether they contribute to or detract from well-being, still reigns supreme. A sustainable economy needs a different way of measuring human activity and of providing signals to investors, producers, and consumers. It needs a different theory, abandoning the outdated assumption that quantitative growth is unconditionally desirable and embracing instead the notion of qualitative growth.

Most fundamental, though, is a shift in human perceptions of economic value. In Natural Capitalism, Amory Lovins and co-authors Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken make the case for “a new perception of value, a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to an economy where the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance promotes well-being.” In such an economy, corporate revenues and profits would no longer be associated with maximizing the quantity of stuff produced and sold, but rather with deriving the most service and best performance out of a product, and therefore from minimizing energy and materials consumption and maximizing quality. And such an economy would offer much broader scope for green employment.