Is there anything compelling about having a five
day working week as a norm, with weekly hours of
between 35 and 40 hours?
According to the New
Economics Foundation, there is not. It's a
default that has emerged over the course of the
industrial age, which is due to the 'commodification
of time'. Working time is overvalued, and
unpaid work - voluntary work, family care and
housework - is undervalued.
The NEF is proposing that 21 hours should be
adopted as the new 'normal'. While people would
still be able to work more or fewer hours than this, they
propose that 21 hours, or its equivalent spread
over longer periods, should become the standard that
is expected by government, employers, trade unions,
employees and everyone else.
of work and wealth
The authors of the report argue that 21 hours is
around the average that people of working age work
in Britain. And it's just a little bit more
than the average time that people spend in paid
work. The problem is that working time and the
rewards that go with it are not distributed
equitably. So the report calls for an
equalising towards the average.
Though 21 hours
should be worked towards as a norm, the authors
argue that there would not be 'time police' on
patrol to see that people do not exceed this.
However, a regulatory approach is envisaged to
encourage businesses towards a 21 hour norm, e.g.
raising the minimum wage, higher taxes for
above-average earners and discouraging overtime
while incentivising taking on extra shorter-hours
Good for the planet, people and markets
Why do it? Just as people argue that smart
working is good for business, for people and for the
environment, so there is a 'triple bottom line'
argument for the 21 hour working week:
- Good for the planet: a shorter
working week will 'help to break the habit of
living to work, working to earn, and earning to
consume'. So it will be a step in the
right direction for less carbon-intensive
- Good for social justice and well-being:
it would help to redistribute work and tackle
the twin evils of the long hours working culture
on the one hand and unemployment on the other.
It would also help to distribute both work and
caring responsibilities more evenly between
women and men.
- Good for the economy: It would ' help
to adapt the economy to the needs of society and
the environment, rather than subjugating society
and the environment to the needs of the
economy'. It would help to end credit-fuelled
growth and develop a more resilient and
adaptable economy, boosting the transition to a
low carbon and sustainable economy.
Productivity - more, less or same?
One of the key issues is about whether there
needs to be steady increases in productivity to
make this transition possible. According
to Juliet Schor, author of True Wealth, in the LSE debate, wages won't
decrease as we shift to 21 hours because they
will be supported by increases in productivity.
But this seems a bit at odds with the
objective of having a less carbon-intensive
economy and moving away from a consumer society.
As Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without
Growth, pointed out in one of the many memorable
phrases from the speakers, he said we live in a
society that enables you to use 'money we don't
have to spend on things you don't need to create
impressions that won't last on people that you
don't care about'.
The vision of a a 21 hour society coupled
with negative economic growth seems more
coherent than one which envisages maintaining
current levels of output and wages through
higher productivity. But the question is
whether that is what people really want.
The role of government
The government is envisaged as playing a key
role in bringing about the transition to
21 hours. A more progressive tax system,
redistribution of assets through wealth, land
and inheritance taxes, increasing the minimum
wage, improving state benefits, funding
universal child care, credits for unpaid work
The report points out that much of this would
be hard to achieve in the current climate, and
advocates 'co-production' which appears to mean
the state enlisting unpaid labour for the good
It seems there could be a problem here too if
regulatory measures are being used to push
people out of higher-paid (long hours) work,
as this would erode the tax base. Taxes on
consumption would also fall, as there is less
consumption. This is a key problem here:
that the state is losing a big chunk of its tax
base at the same time as it is expected to be
far more active.
There is also a worrying note in the section
headed 'Changing norms and expectations'.
In this section there are examples given of big
changes in public attitudes on contentious issues over
just a few years. Examples are given such
as ending the slave trade, giving votes to
women, wearing crash helmets and seat belts and
banning lead in petrol.
The problem with all these examples is that
they all come from legislation, compulsion and
where necessary enforcement. Not
persuasion, as the 21 Hours study seems to be
saying. Or is there an unintended sub-text
that really this all needs to be backed up with
some bigger guns to work?
Why 21 hours? A business perspective
It's worth noting that 21 hours is not the
average working time of people currently in
work. The average for full-time workers is
around 37 hours, and the average for part-timers
is around 19. The 'average' of 21 is reached by
including all the people of working age who are
not working in the calculation, whether they are
looking for work or not. In 2011 the average
number of working hours for people in work was
33, with the median level being 37 hours per
So the idea of 21 hours is not
especially connected with any business reason
related to the work that needs to be done or the
skills embodied in an individual who is needed
to perform the work.
The idea is very much linked to
the idea that current levels of work can be
maintained bit with a substantial amount
redistributed to the non-employed. But can
they? The argument cuts both ways.
the one hand job-shares usually work better than
most people expect. And 21 hours is about
half of a 'normal' job, so there is precedent
for doing this.
On the other hand there are a range of issues
- There would need to be a massive uplift
of skills if everyone in work were to drop
their hours from the typical 37 down to 21.
Can those not in work step into the breach?
The report argues that this would need to be
addressed over time, with massive investment
- Employers would have to recruit and
train two people for every current job.
Even if the costs of employing are reduced,
what is the business argument that will
persuade employers to accept this?
- For employers and customers, there is a
need for continuity of contact. Can
this be achieved if everyone is working
- For entrepreneurs and others creating
new value, for people like social workers or
lawyers or others dealing with case work -
is 21 hours anywhere near enough to do a
coherent week's work?
It's about output, not the hours
To those of us involved in developing new
ways of working, there is something that
seems a little dated in the focus.
Despite all the original and forward-looking
thinking in the report, the focus on 'hours'
seems out of step with the whole direction
of modern management thinking.
time spent at work seems to align the study with a
declining view of what work is all about.
Managing new ways of working is all about
measuring results, not about counting the
hours, which smacks of 'presenteeism' and
industrial age management.
And there is little
point getting the unemployed into 21 hours of work
if they are not doing anything useful in terms of
output. There is a very big challenge here -
how on the one hand to incentivise people enough to
move from benefits into work, and on the other hand
how to generate sufficient value from that work to
support wages that will provide the incentive.
There is a link to be made here with the
emphasis that the report puts on the
undervalued-nature of unpaid work. So what
we need is to develop a robust way of
measuring and rewarding the results of
socially valuable activity. In this
way the work that needs to be done can be
managed in a more effective way than simply
counting the input in terms of hours.
this context we look forward Robert Skidelsky's new
book How Much Is Enough:
The Economics of the Good Life. Lord
Skidelsky argued in the debate that GDP is a poor
measure for prosperity, and we need ways to measure
the variety of things that make up 'the good life'.
The NEF has produced this report not as
the solution, but as a first run at making
the case for shorter working hours.
"This report makes the case for a
substantial reduction in paid working
hours, aiming towards 21 hours a week as
the norm. The current norm of a
nine-to-five, five-day week in paid
employment does not reflect the way most
people use their time. Unpaid work is
generally overlooked and undervalued. A
much shorter working week offers very
considerable benefits to the
environment, to society, and to the
"The next step is to make a
thorough examination of the benefits,
challenges, barriers, and opportunities
associated with moving towards a 21-hour
week over the next decade. This will be
part of the ‘Great Transition’ to a
At Flexibility we're sure the
debate is one worth having. And part
of it is to bring together these ideas with
the possibilities offered by greater choice
in the way people work - not only reducing
hours; new kinds of flexible organisations
and management; and new approaches to
entrepreneurship that can lead to more
sustainable models of growth.