Home        Contact Us        Site Map          Search              

Europe's leading website for smarter working



Site Map



21 Hours

The case for a shorter working week

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.

Better distribution 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 workers.

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 growth.
  • 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 of society.

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 week.

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.

On 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 to address:

  • 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 in skills.
  • 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 shorter hours?
  • 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.

Focusing on 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.

In 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 national debate

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 economy...

"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 sustainable future."

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.

January 2012

The debate

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) is  rekindling the debate around its report 21 Hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish, first published in 2010.

The report was relaunched at a packed event at the London School of Economics on 11th January.  You can watch the whole discussion on the NEF website, and download the report from there too.

Definitely worth viewing, both thought-provoking and entertaining, with contributions from Juliet Schor, Lord Robert Skidelsky and Tim Jackson, with NEF's Anna Coote in the chair.

There is clearly a great deal of interest in the issues, and it is very closely linked with new and flexible ways of working.

Flexibility comment: The report raises many fundamental issues about moving towards a more sustainable economy and better lives in work and outside of work. There are many challenging and thought-provoking insights. But as yet the ideas don't really gel into a coherent whole.

Some of the contradictions were highlighted in the discussion at the LSE. For example uncertainty over whether people would end up (financially) poorer or not.  And whether the idea is predicated on increases in productivity, or whether increased productivity should no longer be a goal in order to save the planet.

There also seems to be an excess of policy-think and an absence of business-think in the current approach to the issue.  In particular the focus on hours seems at odds with modern management ideas, where the focus is on management by output or results, not on the hours of work.

Fewer hours of paid work is indeed the choice for many.  Whether 21 hours should become an expected norm with a raft of regulation and redistribution in its wake is another matter.


Buy related books from
Tim Jackson and Juliet Schor


Pre-order Lord Robert Skidelsky's new book How Much Is Enough:
The Economics of the Good Life
co-written with his son, Edward Skidelsky




Tim Jackson, Robert Skidelsky and Anna Coote
at the LSE event








Citrix logo CMI Workplace logo Saint-Gobain Ecophon logo Plantronics logo Vision29 logo Workplace Manager logo