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The 20 Hour Workweek (F)

January 15, 2012

This article has come up in conversation many times over the past month. In short, it discusses the conclusions reached by a UK think tank (The New Economics Foundation) on the subject of shortening the workweek to 20 hours. “[I]f everyone worked fewer hours – say, 20 or so a week – there would be more jobs to go round, employees could spend more time with their families and energy-hungry excess consumption would be curbed”.

The criticisms of this conclusion have to do with the high cost of living (specifically in the UK, but the same principle can be applied elsewhere) and the difficulties of paying for needs, housing especially, on a low-salary job with reduced hours. While I have absolutely no economic expertise, I can understand the point that for a reduced hour system to work minimum wage might have to be raised and an economy might have to be restructured significantly.

I rather like this idea: but because I know myself to be a naïve and idealistic token hippy, I’m going to look at the point that this article makes about consumer culture and over-scheduling rather than the practical economic ramifications.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the responses to the idea of the 20 hour work week floating around on the internet. These are not representative; I’m pulling ones that talk about the relationship between spare time and income.

But I can easily see the appeal of a 20-hour workweek. If I were independently wealthy, or held a very lucrative position, I would work less in a heartbeat. I’d fill my time with trips to the gym, art classes, travel, and all of the other things I’d like to do but never have the funds and/or time to actualize. When I have the time, I’m not making enough money to pursue these things. And when I have the money, I’m too busy with work. My other issue is the fact that nearly everyone I know works 35+ hours a week. That’s a lot of excess solo time to fill.

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I work more than 40 hours a week. I work every moment I can — partly because I love it, partly because I need the money to maintain my lifestyle. I’ve learned that money can buy you happiness… money can buy you time later on (for retirement, for a midcareer change, for doing work that you love but that doesn’t pay very well).

No, not every Internet user believes that they need money to use his or her ‘free’ time well. Comments such as these, however, do reflect a mindset that seems to be shared by many: that wealth and happiness are inextricable. This seems like a dangerous supposition to me, for anxiety is already attached to work and commitment without the assumption that we need money not only to survive, but also to be happy. The hours spent away from the workplace (or the school) are our own, and if we aren’t creative enough to use them in ways that aren’t financially stressful then we’re rapidly losing our imaginative capabilities. While financial stress in terms of necessities is harder to escape, can we at least mitigate the financial stress we’re attaching to leisure? This naïve and idealistic token hippy of an author is going to use this question to inform her new year’s resolutions this time around. She defends the fact that they are not yet made with the point that sometimes moving slowly generates better results.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2012 7:24 pm

    Here I am again. I am totally down with the idea of a twenty hour work week. People seem to interpret this as suddenly earning more for less work and then having an abundance of time. They don’t seem to realize that if they were to streamline their expenses they could simply support themselves with much less.

    I can live quite comfortably on $1200 a month. I’ve certainly lived on much less. In the “Farm” in France I lived on practically nothing for two years. I was given food and shelter in exchange for my work. Everything I needed came to me through the charity of the visitors. I also did a tiny bit of work on the side for offerings to pay for extra things.

    Nowadays people want too much to be independent. They have lost the idea of being a community, or even a tribe. We could all live with much less if we were willing to simply share what we’ve got.

  2. January 17, 2012 8:57 pm

    Here I am visiting again. This 20 hour work week has me intrigued. In reading the final comments it makes me think of something somebody said last week at circus class. She said “I wish that I was rich, then I could train every day all day long. My immediate thought was well if you were poor you could also train all day long. If you had no financial responsibilities, and minimal financial needs, you would only have to work a few short hours each month, to cover your bills, and then have the rest of the time to do what makes you happiest.
    When I came back from France the first time I found a room to rent for $170 a month. So to cover my rent I had to work three days a month(back when $7.50 was minimum wage.
    I own all my own gear, so training was free. Life was sweet and simple then…

  3. January 19, 2012 2:21 pm

    We really enjoy your comments!
    The quote from the woman in your class is interesting; it’s almost going even further than the ones in the article because her ideal activity doesn’t actually require much money but she perceives a great need for it anyways. Who knows? Perhaps her life situation really does demand a full time job and income, but it certainly is interesting to think about how much of financial need is really ‘need’.

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