With climate change threatening life as we know it, perhaps it's time to revive the forgotten goal of spending less time on our jobs
Writer David Spencer took on the topic in a widely shared essay published in The Guardian UK in February entitled "Why work more? We should be working less for a better quality of life: Our society tolerates long working hours for some and zero hours for others. This doesn't make sense."
He cites practical benefits of working less, from reducing unemployment to increasing the productivity and happiness of workers, and cites a long and varied philosophical history supporting this forgotten goal, including opposing economists John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx.
Keynes called less work the "ultimate solution" to unemployment and he "also saw merit in using productivity gains to reduce work time and famously looked forward to a time (around 2030) when people would be required to work 15 hours a week. Working less was part of Keynes's vision of a 'good society,'" Spencer wrote.
"Marx importantly thought that under communism work in the 'realm of necessity' could be fulfilling as it would elicit and harness the creativity of workers. Whatever irksome work remained in realm of necessity could be lessened by the harnessing of technology," Spencer wrote.
He also cited Bertrand Russell's acclaimed 1932 essay, "In Praise of Idleness," in which the famed mathematician reasoned that working a four-hour day would cure many societal ills. "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached," Russell wrote.
Spencer concluded his article by writing, "Ultimately, the reduction in working time is about creating more opportunities for people to realize their potential in all manner of activities including within the work sphere. Working less, in short, is about allowing us to live more."
JOBS VS. WORK
Schor's research has shown how long working hours — and the uneven distribution of those hours among workers — has hampered our economy, hurt our environment, and undermined human happiness.
"We have an increasingly poorly functioning economy and a catastrophic environmental situation," Schor told us in a phone interview from her office at Boston College, explaining how the increasingly dire climate change scenarios add urgency to talking about how we're working.
Schor has studied the problem with other researchers, with some of her work forming the basis for Rosnick's work, including the 2012 paper Schor authored with University of Alabama Professor Kyle Knight entitled "Could working less reduce pressures on the environment?" The short answer is yes.
"As humanity's overshoot of environmental limits become increasingly manifest and its consequences become clearer, more attention is being paid to the idea of supplanting the pervasive growth paradigm of contemporary societies," the report says.
The United States seems to be a case study for what's wrong.
"There's quite a bit of evidence that countries with high annual work hours have much higher carbon emissions and carbon footprints," Schor told us, noting that the latter category also takes into account the impacts of the products and services we use. And it isn't just the energy we expend at work, but how we live our stressed-out personal lives.
"If households have less time due to hours of work, they do things in a more carbon-intensive way," Schor said, with her research finding those who work long hours often tend to drive cars by themselves more often (after all, carpooling or public transportation take time and planning) and eat more processed foods.