The 21-hour-work week

The New Economics Foundation has proposed to shorten the work week to 21 hours. The proponents of this plan make several arguments in favour of it, we will discuss a few of those in this post. The remaining arguments are related to terrestrial issues such as environmental problems, because these are of less importance for a space-based society we will leave them out here.

The proposers of the 21-hour work week, see their plan as a (partial) solution for the following problems:

A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life. (New Economics Foundation).

The problems most relevant of this list which are most relevant for us, are: unemployment, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, lack of time to care for each other and enjoying life.

But before we continue our discussion of the arguments in favour of a 21-hour work week, we need to address to most fundamental objection against it. One might argue that such short work week is simply too short for maintaining the economy. This objection has a simple rebuttal: because of technological progress, the productivity of workers has been increased significantly, and this development is likely to continue in the near future. If the productivity per worker increases, working hours can be decreased whilst the total productivity remains the same. Further automation might eliminate the need for human employees at some point in the (distant) future.

A different but related objection is that a 21-hour work week provides workers simply not enough income to live from. However, the people from the New Economics Foundation suggest to increase hourly wages by such amount that all workers, even with a 21-hour work week, have a living wage. Instead we propose to introduce a basic income guarantee, which ensures that every person has a sufficient income to live from, regardless of whether they are employed or not.

By reducing the work week from, say, 42 hours to 21 hours, one new job position becomes available. Some countries, such as Spain for instance, has such levels of unemployment, that a reduction of the working week might be the only way to increase job opportunities. Though in the early stages of space colonization underemployment would be a bigger concern, we have to realize that in later stages, when space population will grow, an increasing number of people will seek a job. Therefore a 21-hour work week would be an elegant method to keep unemployment levels low.

Increasing human well-being is our primary aim, by creating a new and better society. How would a reduction in working hours enhance well-being? Nowadays, many people have to make long hours, just to survive. By doing so their health is often heavily compromised. Further they have only little time for their friends and family. By reducing working hours, while ensuring a sufficient income, well-being will be promoted.

The New Economics Foundation discusses the topic of inequality mainly in terms of gender-relations. Their argument is that by reducing the work week, gender relation will become more balanced. In most modern families, it is still the woman who does most of the housework and child care. A 21-hour work week for both partners will enable them to combine their work and their family more equally: since men will work less they can spend more time in their children, whilst women have to spend less time with this and can work more hours. As a classical liberal organization, we place great importance on gender-equality and if a 21-hour work week will promote this goal, we will embrace it.

The 21-hour work week will improve the quality of family life, since parents have to work less and can spend more time with their children. A leading cause of (youth) crime is the absence of parental care, children who have no or little contact with their parents often drop out from school and turn into crime. The more time parents can invest in their offspring, the more successful their children will be in life; to the benefit of society as a whole.

Another argument in favour of shorter work weeks, is that if people have to work less, they can spend more time to community life. The central idea of classical republicanism is the civic virtue. A person has civic virtue if he or she is publicly spirited, and strongly related to civic virtue is the idea of the vita activa: the devotion of life to the common good. The Latin phrase Res Publica means the public interest, a republican government is therefore a government devoted to the promotion of the common good.

Classical republicans, such as Hannah Arendt, put great emphasize on active citizenship, i.e. the active participation of citizens in public affairs. For most people this would mean enrolment in neighbourhood activities, however people can only participate in public affairs if they have enough time to do so. Therefore republicans should support the introduction of a 21-hour work week.

A work week of 24 hours gives three 7-hour workdays (or seven 3-hour weeks). The concept of the 7-hour workday isn’t new, and has been proposed by many person, including Theodor Herzl, who also proposed the following system:

There will t fourteen hours of labor, work being done in shifts of three and a half hours. The organization of all this will be military in character; there will be commands, promotions and pensions, the means by which these pensions are provided being explained further on.

A sound man can do a great deal of concentrated work in three and a half hours. After an interval of the same length of time — which he will devote to rest, to his family and to his education under guidance — he will be quite fresh for work again. Such labor can do wonders. The seven-hour day thus implies fourteen hours of joint labor — more than that cannot be put into a day. (Herzl, 1896).

Except for the military character of Herzl’s method, this idea would be great. It would allow businesses to be open from 8.00 to 22.00 (local time), but also allows to work at the time they are most productive. Some people are more active in the evening hours, whilst others will prefer to work in the early hours.


8 thoughts on “The 21-hour-work week”

  1. I really like this idea, Mordanicus. Often it seems that people either work 50 or zero hours a week. The idea of active citizenship and being able to care for children/old people or other people that need it sounds good.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Where I live, the Netherlands, it’s common to work part-time, though this is mainly a women’s thing (because of motherhood and so). So introducing a 21-hour work week here, wouldn’t be that difficult. But in other countries it would be much more ddifficult.

  2. Seriously? I could see 20 hours, maybe, but 21?
    With, what, 7 billion people on Earth now (an one’s on the way, always), there’s more work being done than ever before at any given moment. We should all be rich (if it wasn’t being siphoned off by a few fat bastards and inimical corporations)!
    So, short of being rich, I’d settle for a 20% or waking hours work duty cycle in exchange for a fair share of the wealth I’ve created for The Few. That seems about fair. Otherwise I’ll lead the cannibal hordes right to the country club gates for a good barbecue!

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