The focus of conventional employment policy is on creating ‘more work’. People without work and in receipt of benefits are viewed as a drain on the state and in need of assistance or direct coercion to get them into work. There is the belief that work is the best form of welfare and that those who are able to work ought to work.The case for working less (Pieria) Much more at the link.
This particular focus on work has come at the expense of another, far more radical policy goal, that of creating ‘less work’. Yet, as I will argue below, the pursuit of less work could provide a route to a better standard of life, including a better quality of work life.
The idea that society might work less in order to enjoy life more goes against standard thinking that celebrates the virtue and discipline of hard work. Dedication to work, so the argument goes, is the best route to prosperity. There is also the idea that work offers the opportunity for self-realisation, adding to any material benefits from work. ‘Do what you love’ in work, we are told, and success will follow.
But ideologies such as the above are based on a myth that work can always set us free and provide us with the basis for a good life. As I have written elsewhere, this mythologizing about work fails to confront – indeed it actively conceals – the acute hardships of much work performed in modern society. For many, work is about doing ‘what you hate’.
Economists may cry foul that a reduction in working time will add to firm costs and lead to job losses (mainstream economics accuses advocates of shorter work hours of succumbing to the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ and of failing to see the extra costs of hiring additional workers on shorter hours contracts). One retort to this is that longer work hours are not that productive. Shorter work hours may actually be more productive if they increase the morale and motivation of workers. In practice, we could achieve the same standard of living with fewer hours of work.
But the more profound question is whether we should be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero work hours for others. Surely society can achieve a more equitable allocation of work that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want? A reduction in work time, it can be argued here, would offer a route to such an allocation.
There is also the deeper issue of whether we should be measuring the value of our lives by what we produce. The cult of productivity crowds out other more ‘leisurely’ ways of living that can add to human well-being. Challenging this cult and seeking ways to lighten the burden of work could allow us all to live better lives inside and outside of work.
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.
These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear seperately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.
It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them — whether out of the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something.”
So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.
I like the way Drum puts it: “people want to believe that their fellow citizens are working.” The word believe suggests that it’s the ideology of what counts as work that’s doing the work. And I’d like to believe it’s possible to deconstruct that ideology, rather than consigning ourselves to a future of endless make-work in the name of social solidarity.
Work It (Jacobin)
MG: How do you think employers would react to the proposal of a shorter working time?
AC: I have come across employers who said that their workforce is much more committed and harder working because most of them are on shorter hours. I have also come across employers who said they couldn’t imagine anything worse than having to manage a part-time workforce. As it happens I manage a part-time workforce and I have every variation on my team who come to work from one to five days per week. You’ve got to get used to it, but it’s not that difficult. Employers should be given incentives to take on part-time employees. We used to have a six day working week, and now we don’t. So you can get used to it.
MG: And what is the reaction of politicians?
AC: They are not very interested at the moment. We don’t think it is a proposal for next year’s election manifesto. But there is a huge interest among the public at large and in the media. It’s something that everybody relates to. So my feeling is that politicians will come round to it eventually.
MG: But I wonder, isn’t it a good idea for these times of economic crisis — because it seems it would increase employment?
AC: Well, indeed. And that’s what happened when we had a crisis in the 1970s. There was a national three day week in Britain, when the coal miners went on strike. Everybody thought it would be terrible for the economy but actually it hardly dented productivity, certainly not as much as people expected. It was quite a successful demonstration project.A shorter working week is possible (Resilience)