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How to help people, the planet and economy? 21-hour work week

Quick: name an all-in-one way to stop unsustainable consumption, rising carbon emissions, economic malaise, high unemployment and increased social inequality.

The British think-tank nef has its answer: a 21-hour work week.

Shortening the standard work week would offer a plethora of social and environmental benefits, asserts a new report from the organisation, “21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century.” Among the benefits such a shift could provide:

  • More sustainable use of natural resources. “Moving towards a much shorter working week would help break the habit of living to work, working to earn, and earning to consume.”
  • Greater social equality. “A 21-hour ‘normal’ working week could help distribute paid work more evenly across the population, reducing ill-being associated with unemployment, long working hours and too little control over time.”
  • A stronger economy. “Shorter working hours could help to adapt the economy to the needs of society and the environment, rather than subjugating society and environment to the needs of the economy.”

“The last two years revealed many to be consuming well beyond our economic means and beyond the limits of the natural environment, yet in ways that also fail to improve our well-being,” said Andrew Simms, a co-author of the report and policy eirector at nef. “Meanwhile many others suffer poverty and hunger. Our research shows that moving to a shorter working week could be the only way left untried to square this seemingly impossible circle.”

The report acknowledges making the transition to a 21-hour work week wouldn’t be easy in the face of likely resistance from employers, trade unions and even employees who don’t want to see reduced pay. However, it offers a toolbox of strategies for easing the shift:

“(R)educing hours gradually over a number of years in line with annual wage increments; changing the way work is managed to discourage overtime; providing active training to combat skills shortages and to help long-term unemployed return to the labour force; managing employers’ costs to reward rather than penalise taking on extra staff; ensuring more stable and equal distribution of earnings; introducing regulations to standardise hours that also promote flexible arrangements to suit employees, such as job sharing, extended care leave and sabbaticals; and offering more and better protection for the self-employed against the effects of low pay, long hours, and job insecurity.”

Thoughts? Let us know in the comments section below or join nef’s discussion on Twitter.

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