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The Twenty Hour Work Week

Updated on June 25, 2015
TessSchlesinger profile image

Growing up in a political family, Tessa joined her first political party at 14. Her interest in progressive politics & economics continues.

In the 50s and 60s, as a reader, I often came across articles indicating that in the very near future, with the increase in technology, none of us would be required to work forty hours a week. We would have machinery do our work, and we could improve the world through having more time to think and create, and in addition become better people. That never happened. I know that, because I kept waiting for it to happen. I have never been a fan of endless and mindless hard work. I have, rather, been a fan of resolving problems, making the world a better place, constantly improving myself, and enjoying life. Whenever I have broached the idea that if there was a twenty hour work week, there would be jobs for everybody, everybody would be healthier and wealth could be more even divided, I have been told that it’s impossible.

So, imagine my delight when think tanks have recently come out to support my idea of a twenty hour work week.

Reasons the 20 hour work week will frighten you...

Business won't pay workers enough money to live
How much one is paid is a decision made by the owners of the company. There are only two reasons that companies and/or corporations couldn’t pay workers enough money to survive (and live well) on a twenty hour work week. The first is that they don’t want to because they prefer to have excessively high profits, and the second is that they company would be bankrupted if it did. So let’s speak about those two objections.

Corporations will go out of business
No, they won’t. What will happen is that people at the top end won’t be earning as much as they currently are. They never used to anyway. In the 60s, the CEO used to earn 40 times what the guys at the bottom earns. Now he earns 827 times than the guy at the bottom earns. In addition, while attention has not been focused on it, the senior executives in the company are also earning outrageous salaries, as are the members of the boards. Add to that the excessive return on investment (roi) that shareholders are taking home, and there’s a whole lot of money that makes it perfectly possible for workers to earn sufficient money. Of course, shareholders, executive management, the board of directors, and the CEO will earn a lot less. However, earning a lot less does not mean that they will be earning the same or less than workers.

A group of economists believes the working week should be reduced from an average of 40 hours to just 30 and cite Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others, as examples of countries that have shorter working weeks but no less productivity am
A group of economists believes the working week should be reduced from an average of 40 hours to just 30 and cite Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others, as examples of countries that have shorter working weeks but no less productivity am | Source

The ethics of paying less for more...

You respond by saying to me that company will pay you more money for less work. No, of course, they don’t. And that’s why they allow millions of people the world over to live either on or beneath the poverty line. They have little social ethic towards other human beings. For example, while Bill Gates gives billions to various foundations, the offshoots of paying the people at the bottom more and charging less for his software would have had better medium to long term consequences for virtually everybody.

Firstly, manufacturing would have remained in America, thereby permitting a lot more people to get informal training through their work. Secondly, it would have kept a lot more people employed. Thirdly, a lot more people would have been able to afford to buy the software (thereby alleviating the piracy issue), and because they would have had access, it would have informally taught them skills that they couldn’t learn before. Unhappily, it took at least a decade for the working poor and very poor to catch up with middle class kids in terms of computers. Those medium to long term benefits would have been far better to society than Bill Gates now handing over billions to various causes elsewhere. The biggest factor is that if people have sufficient resources to look after themselves, they don’t need to seek aid elsewhere. It is, essentially, the underpayment of lower level workers, and the drive for excessive profits (and hedonistic gratification) that is, at least partially, responsible for the current extreme division of spoils.

At this point, corporations and companies have become so accustomed to dividing the spoils in this way, that it won’t be easy to get them to change. It will involve massive union action, and an understanding (education, education, and more education) by the masses that the actions of corporate leaders and shareholders in this respect are nothing short of criminal (and even criminally insane) to change this.

Working less and living longer

What is the nature of the many hours of non-work? In youth activities center around education and recreation. Then, during the typical 40-year work career, one-third of the disposable time is spent at the work place and two-thirds are spent raising children, doing household work, and in leisure and holiday activities. After retirement, time is used for recreation, leisure activities, and, with aging, much expenditure goes for health maintenance.

An analyses ... beginning in the mid-nineteenth century ... showed that on average people are working significantly less while living longer.

This article was initially posted elsewhere but has been updated and removed. This was one of the comments.
This article was initially posted elsewhere but has been updated and removed. This was one of the comments.

You've been indoctrinated to believe that 40 hours is normal...

According to an article by Michael Coren in 2012, a 21 hour work week would create jobs and stop the unsustainable consumerism which is destroying our world. I agree. I also believe that as a result of the massive unemployment that will kill half the world's jobs within the next five to fifteen years due to Artificial Intelligence and Soft Robotics coming on line, it's one way to ensure that everybody has a wage.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has stated that the forty hour work week is a human construct that became necessary during the Industrial Revolution but has long outlived its usefulness and has, in fact, become destructive to the health and well being of humanity.

Human beings never evolved to work forty hours per week. In fact, most mammals don't do more than twenty hours of work per week, and, until the time of the Industrial Revolution, human beings did not work more than that.

The Romans had 175 public holidays per year during which they didn't work. Work that out!

During the middle ages, Alfred the Great of England insisted that people work eight hours a day six days of the week. He didn't, of course. You can read about the history of increased hours of the working week.

Excessive working hours have impacted heavily on the work force in terms of ill health and mental illness. The cost to production and distribution (what an economy is) has been enormous.

Do you honestly enjoy working 40 hours per week

See results

How much more work is done by longer working hours?

Repeated studies have shown that people do the same amount of work in twenty hours as they do in forty hours.

Henry Ford ran a similar experiment. There was more work available than workers in those days so, in order to get workers, he offered a five day week at a higher salary than other companies were offering for a six day week. What he found was that people did exactly the same amount of work in those five days as they had previously done in six days.

The fact is that well rested people can focus more and work harder than people who are stressed from long hours and little recovery time.

Quote: Eric Rauch from MIT noted in his 2000 paper Productivity and the Workweek that “An average worker needs to work a mere 11 hours per week to produce as much as one working 40 hours in 1950.” In other words, we should be able to work reduced hours with no impact on productivity.

Mankind never used to more more than twenty hours per week

Human beings did NOT evolve working forty to sixty hours per week. What they did was divide the tasks, e.g. men used to hunt for meat and women used to take care of the home. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any division of tasks, and the way these tasks were divided makes perfect sense. Women gave birth to kids, and it was women who needed to breastfeed, so it made sense for women to stay home and look after the kids. Also, while she was at home, she could look after the housekeeping. Imagine a man staying at home and trying to breastfeed the kids, or a woman who was about to give birth out on a hunt and her water breaks just at the time, someone is about to shoot a charging lion with a bow and arrow. I don’t think so. Do you?

Yes, as working tasks became more sophisticated, men developed an attitude that women’s tasks were easier (and, therefore, inferior) to their own. However, a wrong attitude towards a decision doesn’t make the decision wrong. That’s a logical fallacy.

If you examine farm work as well, you will see that long winter hours were spent at home. How much work does one actually do when one is farming, anyway? One sows seeds in the spring, harvests them in the autumn, milks the cows, grows the chickens, and that’s about it. It’s maximum about four hours work a day. It was the industrial revolution that changed that.

Pre-industrial workers had fewer working hours than we do.
To give an example of what the above article says, it mentions that "it was ... unusual for servile laborers to ... work a whole day for a lord. One day's work was considered half a day, and if a serf worked an entire day, this was counted as two "days-works."

A thinktank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which has organised the event with the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, argues that if everyone worked fewer hours – say, 20 or so a week – there would be more
A thinktank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which has organised the event with the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, argues that if everyone worked fewer hours – say, 20 or so a week – there would be more | Source

Benefits of the 20 hour work week

There are many benefits to the twenty hour work week, and I am going to list them here.

1. Mental health will improve and mental disease will gradually disappear over the next few generations as physical health improves. The health of the mother and father has a direct impact on the life long health of the baby born. Currently, the United States of America has the highest rate of mental illness in the world. About half of its people suffer from some sort of mental illness. Many mental health issues are triggered by excessive alcoholic use, excessive drug use (whether recreational or medicinal), and excessive junk food.

2. Physical health will improve as people become more active in getting out and walking, and taking part in recreational activities like dancing and sports. Scientists have currently discovered that sitting for eight hours a day is a severe impairment to health. Yes, it is. I discovered that forty years ago, and I hate desk jobs for that reason. Physical health will also improve because people will have more time to prepare food naturally, and this will have an enormous impact on cutting down obesity and diabetes. This would save the nation billions spent on illnesses related to obesity.

3. People will begin to be more thoughtful and wise in their decisions of what to produce. This will have a positive impact on healing our world of the environmental destruction. To quote from an article by by Don Fitz entitled 'What's wrong with the 30 Hour Work Week' "Leisure is essential for a democratic society involving people in all aspects of self-government. Instead of working frenetically to produce “stuff” that we don’t have the time to enjoy... Research ... shows that, once important needs are met, additional belongings bring no additional happiness. Yet work is strongly related to stress."

4. Creativity will take giant leaps.There is a mistaken belief that creativity is a result of diversity. This has been proved to be a mistaken conclusion. Creativity, throughout the ages, has taken place where there is discretionary income and free time. In other words, the more free time and the more money people have to invest in their interests, the more creativity increases. When people are working themselves to death and there is little money over for anything extra, creativity decreases.

5. Community interaction and contribution will become more effective. The problem with not earning enough money and working until one drops from being bone weary is that there is little time to oversee what community leaders are doing and/or to assist neighbors and/or other members of the community who are struggling. Once, there is more income and more free time, more and more people will become community conscious and begin to attend political meetings and state meetings. Oversight by the people for the people will increase. This will lead to more effective government, less corruption, and a safer, happier environment.

6. People will become better educated.As a result of worse and worse ‘education,’ the meaning of the word education and qualification have become mixed. Mostly, people go to a tertiary institution (like university, a college, or a school) to obtain a qualification. There is very little education to be had at these institutions. Yes, there is a lot of indoctrination and propaganda, but education? No, there’s little education. The word, education, comes from the Latin word, “educare,” which means to know. It means to know many things – about life, about situations, about anything. It is not specific to a qualification. Essentially, education is best learnt through contemplating (thinking about) experience. When one examines one’s experience and learns from it, one is becoming educated. Other means of becoming educated are through reading and through travelling. Yes, of course, there is a tiny bit of education to be gained through schooling, but hardly up to the standard that previous generations had. As a very old lady said to me two decades ago, “People at the turn of the 19th/20th century were far more mature than they are today.” It is education that matures one. Having more free time, will enable people to become more educated through thinking more, travelling more, and reading more.

© 2015 Tessa Schlesinger

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