A reduction in working hours is often invoked by anti-capitalist and post-development literature. And yet, there is nothing against the capitalist about the short work week. Over the past 200 years, since the industrial revolution led to unprecedented economic growth, working hours have been steadily decreasing. Alessio Terzi writes that today’s discussion of the three-day weekend is not a paradigm shift but a continuation of the paradigm we have seen for over two centuries.
The short work week seems to be upon us. As part of an overhaul of the country’s labor laws, Belgium recently decided to give workers the right to request a four-day week, as Japan has been cracking down on since last summer. Spain is also experimenting with such a scheme from 2021, as is Iceland. Given that long working hours are often related to social benefits, these types of issues can be seen as showing that the relationship is gradually moving away from ‘materialism and profit’, and as a result ‘economic impact and economic growth’. Such a reading would be plausible, especially since the reduction of working hours is often mentioned in anti-capitalist and post-growth literature. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
As I discuss in my recent book Growth for Good, in his words, economic growth is about expanding the boundaries of what is possible, and at the same time serving a list of needs and wants. It is true that these days we can do more with less, thanks to the innovations, which allow people to have many good things, including free time, and fewer working days.
Over the past 200 years, since the industrial revolution led to economic growth, working hours have been steadily decreasing. When Thomas More was thinking about a better world in his famous book Utopia in 1516, he thought one day people might work ‘only’ around 2000 hours a year. This is more than the working hours today in all OECD countries, bar Mexico and Colombia. In 1870, workers in most of today’s industrialized countries worked more than 3,000 hours a year – the equivalent of 60-70 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. That’s almost double the standard work week today. In the US, the average worker in the 1880s faced a six-day workday, consisting of 10 hours a day. By 1940, working hours were eight hours a day, five days a week.
It was Henry Ford, not exactly an anti-capitalist, who introduced the 2-day week in 1926, while keeping the weekly wages the same, guided by the idea that with more time his workers would buy more cars. In an interview in 1926, Ford said: “Rest is an important factor in the growing consumer market because workers need to have enough time to access consumer goods, including cars..” In other words, at the social level, far from representing the end of the profit-oriented system (capitalism) and growth, the reduction of working hours (or more free time) can be seen as a way to distribute the fruits of wealth and old productivity. growth.
Today’s discussion about the three-day week is not a paradigm shift but a continuation of the paradigm we have seen for two centuries. A good example comes from the comparison between the US and Europe. The latter has shorter working hours than the former. And yet, until the 1990s, working hours between Western Europe and the US were similar, as was productivity. Europeans then decided to use part of their income as they got older to increase their leisure time. The result is that GDP per capita is lower in Europe than in the US, where economic well-being is probably comparable all things considered. But the fact remains that the reduction of working hours did not lead to the end of capitalism or the abandonment of economic growth as a general policy.
Similarly, after decades of high growth, rich countries today have the shortest working hours compared to the rest of the world. A trend that is repeated in Europe where, against all expectations, the Greeks work longer (41.8 hours per week) than the Dutch (30.3). The moral of the story should be clear. Reducing working hours is possible today precisely because of innovation and the growth of the economy, which has expanded the limits of possibility. Likewise, another push to shorten the work week is not anti-capitalist, or destructive of a sustainable system of economic growth. In general, shortening working hours can be seen as one way of trying to improve the welfare of citizens. Looking to the future, and regardless of government regulations or employer policies, it is possible that the digital revolution, which is accelerating with the COVID-19 pandemic, will allow us to reduce waste time, improve entertainment and productivity at the same time. No one knows exactly what the future holds, but it’s safe to say that where there’s growth, there’s more, including downtime.
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About the author
Alessio Terzi – Science Po
Alessio Terzi is the author of Growth for Good. He is also a lecturer at Sciences Po (Lille) and an economist at the European Commission. Alessio holds a PhD in political economy from the Hertie School.