Working Less for a Sustainable Future
by Anders Hayden
SINCE the Industrial Revolution, two main motivations have driven the movement for work-time reduction. Free time away from the job improves individual well-being, while reducing work hours can cut unemployment by better distributing the available work. These historical motivations for work-time reduction have been joined by a new rationale: the need to reduce the impact of human societies on the environment.
The urgency of reducing humanity’s impacts on the earth is well documented. Estimates of our ecological footprint suggest that we need 1.5 planets to sustain current consumption practices, while studies of humanity’s “safe operating space” have concluded that we have already crossed some critical planetary boundaries, including safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Two dominant responses to this threat have emerged. One has been to carry on with business as usual, pursuing endless economic expansion while downplaying or denying the severity of environmental problems. But in some countries, business as usual has given way to a second paradigm: the idea of green growth through eco-efficiency and low-impact technologies. While laudable, evidence to date suggests that such efforts do not go far enough, as steady production and consumption growth frequently outpaces eco-efficiency improvements, resulting in continued increases in environmental impacts. Sustainable outcomes also require ideas of sufficiency, which see a need to limit the relentless expansion of output. Work-time reduction would be one way to do this that could also improve well-being.
Noticeable differences already exist among wealthy nations in terms of average hours worked per employee, which, in combination with hourly labor productivity and the percentage of the population that is employed, determine a nation’s level of production. Since the 1970s, a gap has emerged between long-hours nations, such as the United States, and several shorter-hours nations in Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. This gap in work hours had become, by the mid-1990s, the main factor behind the United States’ greater output per capita than Europe.
In effect, in recent decades, American society opted almost exclusively for higher output, while Europeans chose to use at least part of their increase in hourly productivity for greater leisure. They have done so through a range of measures, including standard workweeks of less than 40 hours (e.g., France, Netherlands, Denmark); paid vacations of five or six weeks per year (several countries); generous parental leaves (e.g., Scandinavia); educational and sabbatical leave options (e.g., Denmark, Belgium); and rights for employees to choose shorter work hours while keeping the same hourly pay and prorated benefits (e.g., Netherlands).
While advocates of work-time reduction have highlighted the potential ecological benefits for many years, empirical evidence has emerged recently to support these claims. A study by two American economists found a significant association between work hours and energy consumption. Their economic model showed that if European nations adopted American work hours, they would consume some 25 percent more energy (putting their Kyoto Protocol targets out of reach); meanwhile the United States would consume roughly 20 percent less energy if it moved to Europe’s work/leisure balance (putting it within close striking distance of its original Kyoto target).
In comparing member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with some non-OECD nations, John Shandra and I found statistical support for the idea that longer work hours are associated with larger ecological footprints. The main factor is the contribution of longer work hours to higher gross domestic product, which, in turn, is associated with larger environmental impacts. We also found some evidence of a time-scarcity effect, in which long work hours led to a more environmentally damaging mix of consumption and lifestyle practices, although more research is needed on this specific issue.
Two Swedish researchers looked at the household level and concluded that a 1 percent decrease in work time reduces household energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 0.8 percent on average—mainly by lowering incomes and consumption. Looking ahead, they compared two scenarios for Sweden: (1) keeping the standard workweek at 40 hours and using all future labor productivity gains to increase incomes and consumption; or (2) using half the productivity improvement to reduce the workweek to 30 hours by 2040. They concluded that the second scenario would result in significantly slower growth of energy demand, making it easier to meet the country’s climate targets.
Work-time reduction is also an important element of an ecologically sound response to problems of unemployment. Some selected forms of expansion—such as green job creation through investments in a low-carbon energy system, energy efficiency retrofits of homes and offices, and growth in other ecologically sound sectors—are clearly still needed in order to make the transition to a sustainable economy. In addition, work-time reduction would be a way to equitably distribute available work rather than simply trying to revive conventional, ecologically damaging forms of growth. In Germany, kurzarbeit policies encourage shorter hours in place of blanket layoffs. Workers can shift, for example, to a four-day week and the government tops up their pay on the fifth day. The OECD credits these policies with preventing nearly half a million people from losing their jobs and helping keep German unemployment from rising significantly despite a deep economic contraction in 2008–2009.
One of the best outcomes of less work is the possibility for a better life. Fewer hours worked can open up time for a range of freely chosen and self-directed activities outside of the work-and-spend cycle: more time for friends and family, community involvement, political participation, learning, self-improvement, personal projects, and so on. For many people facing high levels of time pressure and stress, the opportunity to do less and relax more could bring significant physical and mental-health benefits. When France introduced a 35-hour workweek, despite the considerable political controversy and some loss of income growth, the vast majority of employees who gained shorter hours said their overall quality of life improved. Meanwhile, studies from Germany show that individuals who work fewer hours have higher levels of life satisfaction; similar evidence at the country level shows that European nations with shorter work hours also have higher levels of life satisfaction.
Work-time reduction as a key part of an ecological strategy has recently gained institutional recognition. The UK Sustainable Development Commission identified “sharing the work and improving the work-life balance” as one of twelve steps to a sustainable economy.7 Meanwhile, the UN Environment Programme, in a report on green jobs, acknowledged that “channeling productivity gains toward more leisure time instead of higher wages that can translate into ever-rising consumption … increasingly makes sense from an ecological perspective.”8
We should harbor no illusions that such a transition will be easy to achieve—history since the Industrial Revolution has shown that overcoming employer resistance has typically required significant political mobilization. The weakening of the labor movement in many countries and competitive pressures of globalization have created new obstacles to further reducing work hours in ways that simultaneously improve quality of life and preserve adequate incomes for employees—indeed, there are pressures to increase work hours. But as it becomes increasingly clear that humanity is surpassing critical ecological thresholds, we may find a new openness in the years ahead to an alternative vision of progress that is not premised on endless economic growth.
Anders Hayden is assistant professor of political science at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia. His primary research interest is the social and political responses to climate change, particularly the evolving balance between efforts to promote green growth and sufficiency-based challenges to the endless growth of production and consumption. He is the author of "Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption and Ecology".