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
Other countries have found ways of breaking this vicious cycle. A generation ago, Schor said, the Netherlands began a policy of converting many government jobs to 80 percent hours, giving employees an extra day off each week, and encouraging many private sector employers to do the same. The result was happier employees and a stronger economy.
"The Netherlands had tremendous success with their program and they've ended up with the highest labor productivity in Europe, and one of the happiest populations," Schor told us. "Working hours is a triple dividend policy change."
By that she means that reducing per capita work hours simultaneously lowers the unemployment rate by making more jobs available, helps address global warming and other environmental challenges, and allows people to lead happier lives, with more time for family, leisure, and activities of their choosing.
Ironically, a big reason why it's been so difficult for the climate change movement to gain traction is that we're all spending too much time and energy on making a living to have the bandwidth needed to sustain a serious and sustained political uprising.
When I presented this article's thesis to Bill McKibben, the author and activist whose 350.org movement is desperately trying to prevent carbon concentrations in the atmosphere from passing critical levels, he said, "If people figure out ways to work less at their jobs, I hope they'll spend some of their time on our too-often neglected work as citizens. In particular, we need a hell of a lot of people willing to devote some time to breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry."
That's the vicious circle we now find ourselves in. There is so much work to do in addressing huge challenges such as global warming and transitioning to more sustainable economic and energy systems, but we're working harder than ever just to meet our basic needs — usually in ways that exacerbate these challenges.
"I don't have time for a job, I have too much work to do," is the dilemma facing Carlsson and others who seek to devote themselves to making the world a better place for all living things.
To get our heads around the problem, we need to overcome the mistaken belief that all jobs and economic activity are good, a core tenet of Mayor Ed Lee's economic development policies and his relentless "jobs agenda" boosterism and business tax cuts. Not only has the approach triggered the gentrification and displacement that have roiled the city's political landscape in the last year, but it relies on a faulty and overly simplistic assumption: All jobs are good for society, regardless of their pay or impact on people and the planet.
Lee's mantra is just the latest riff on the fabled Protestant work ethic, which US conservatives and neoliberals since the Reagan Era have used to dismantle the US welfare system, pushing the idea that it's better for a single mother to flip our hamburgers or scrub our floors than to get the assistance she needs to stay home and take care of her own home and children.
"There is a belief that work is the best form of welfare and that those who are able to work ought to work. This particular focus on work has come at the expense of another, far more radical policy goal, that of creating 'less work,'" Spencer wrote in his Guardian essay. "Yet...the pursuit of less work could provide a better standard of life, including a better quality of work life."
And it may also help save us from environmental catastrophe.