Utah Saints

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By Mike Small

“Time is not Money; time is Life. When more people can be persuaded to think along these lines we will have taken a real step forward …” – Why Work? (Freedom Press, 1990)

In 2008, amid the shock of the banking collapse and widespread recession, the unlikely state of Utah in the US came up with a radical plan. At only a month’s notice, 18,000 of the state’s 25,000 workforce were put on a four-day week. Wellbeing indicators rocketed, carbon emissions were cut by 14% and huge savings were made.

Now, here in Scotland, maybe we should do the same?

Time for Life is the latest paper from the Jimmy Reid Foundation authored by Isobel Lindsay, Pat Kane, Ben Wray and Gillian Wales. It’s a startling addition to the independence debate pulling everyone out of their centre of gravity away from binary thinking and into a much deeper pool altogether. Two things are immediately striking. Before the JRF there was such a dearth of think-tanks and research going on it’s incredible. We were in a stagnant pond. Secondly, contemporary party politics doesn’t  and can’t do thinking like this. Now we’re moving.

The problem of unemployment is frequently addressed, far less so the problem of bad employment, useless employment or low-paid employment. These ideas begin to address some of these issues but also the deep psychological scars of stress from over-employment and the massive inefficiency of ‘presenteeism’ (ie lots of people ‘in work but doing very little).

Now is the time for fresh thinking:

In Scotland, we are currently engaged in a debate about our nation’s future and how best to allocate our resources, both human and natural. It is only right, therefore, that the issue of time is put back on the agenda, and that an assessment of whether it can be useful in solving numerous problems – societal, environmental, economic, psychological – is made.

The groundbreaking paper recommends phasing in a standard 30-hour working week over 10 years in the event of Scottish independence, with a legal limit to ensure no one works more than 35 hours a week. It’s an idea which has been trialled in Utah in the US and in France where a 35 hour week is enshrined in law and in the Netherlands where ‘Daddy Days’ are a sign of a deeply-embedded commitment to more gender balance in parenting.

The radical redistribution of work would begin with the Scottish Government imposing a shorter week on public-sector staff to show it was feasible.

Time of Life was released in the same week that a new YouGov survey finds that most people (57%) would support introducing a four day working week in the UK. 28% would oppose and 15% don’t know (details here).

This thinking builds on earlier work by Kane on the Play Ethic and fits in the new landscape of post-crash economics, precarity, the stress epidemic and the damaging cultural narrative of ‘scroungers’ and work-shy.

The report could have huge implications for gender relations, parenting, better family life and social creativity, and, as NEF pointed out in 2012, the environment too (see their earlier report Gardening Leave).

The authors write:

In this report we show that there is the capacity through reducing working hours towards 30 hours a week to create sufficient new jobs to achieve full employment. This can be achieved through a ten-year transition process. There are many steps that can help this process:

• Reduce the general cost of living
• Gradual transition for those approaching retirement age
• Create a high-pay economy
• Consider wage ratios
• Tie pay to value through a pay commission
• Prevent employer discrimination against workers who desire shorter schedules
• Greater control through industrial democracy
• Improve and extend government-funded lifelong learning
• Getting more women into the workforce
• A phased transition that is public-sector led and is assessed by government at regular intervals to evaluate effectiveness
• Accepting (for a period) that there will be exemptions and contingencies
• Using school hours contracts/flexible working benefits

The report outlines the many benefits that come from changing a pattern of long-hours for low-
pay for Scottish workers, including the economic boost that would come from a widespread three-day weekend.

The paper maps out a possible ten-year transition to a four-day working week, and the Foundation is now calling on the Scottish Government to consider the change in the event of a Yes vote in the independence referendum.

It concludes:

The post-crash world economy needs to develop a whole new set of measurements and principles in which to evaluate economic success if we are to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

Working time should be central to this debate and Scotland could lead the way in pioneering a 30-hour, four day week.

Critics will warn, rightly, that in times of austerity such measures must not be used as an excuse to downsize or rollback services, make key public staff redundant or enshrine permanent downsizing in public service expectations. Instead it should be about sharing the burden of work and the scope for creativity and non-commodified leisure. At its best it should be the gateway to a new dispensation that can be encoded as: being more; buying less; creating more; consuming less.

The report, titled Time for Life, can be read in full on the Jimmy Reid Foundation website.



Categories: Autonomism, Commentary

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. For years I’ve suspected a three and a half day week which would allow plant, machinery, factories, retail to operate efficiently full time while slashing unemployment would be a good idea. This would usefully be accompanied by an increase in the provision constructive,healthy and fulfilling leisure activities

  2. I’m a freelancer; I’m on a seven day week. Albeit with far more flexible working conditions, meaning I effectively “merge” work and non-work with far more flexibility. For example; sun shining outside during the afternoon? Go for a walk along Portobello beach; I can always do that afternoon’s work after sunset!

  3. Parkinson’s Law (1955) observes that ‘Work expands to fill the time available for its completion’ and so it is true that if we are given a job of work and 40 hours to do it, we will use the full 40 hours.
    My working life extends as far back as the infamous 3-day week from January to March 1974 during the miners’ strike. My brother and I ran a factory in Bridgeton, Glasgow in which a lot of heat was required to bring electrochemical process tanks up to temperature. From cold, after a week-end this took from about 4 am. During this period, we worked 3 ten hour days, so the heating was on for 14 hours after the long week-end, but only 11 hours on subsequent days because of the residual heat left after late working.
    The electricity bills during this period plummeted, the work force had a long break, with less travel and production levels remained as high as in the previous 40-hour week.
    There is no doubt that there would be great savings in greenhouse gas emissions and reduction in stress if we went back to that way of working. The same rules would apply to large office blocks.

  4. Several of my ancestors were glass blowers on the Tyne. I did a lot of research into conditions in the industry and one of the most striking things was that the whole industry worked a four day week even in the early nineteenth century.

    The furnaces were started up on Sunday night and by Monday morning the molten glass, or ‘metal’ as it was known, was ready for working. The men worked continuous shifts day and night until Thursday evening when the furnaces were shut down. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were leisure days.

    Because of the round the clock shifts, the pubs stayed open all night (thirsty work) and the men’s wives did not have jobs as they needed to be on hand to make meals for their husbands at all hours.

  5. Amazing, what a fantastic time to be alive in Scotland, what a nation we’re going to build!

    Off to the read the full report now 🙂

  6. yes Yes YES … meaningless office jobs that are the technological equivalent of shuffling paper to look busy are a terrible burden on our society (and i’m sure their non desk based equivalents). The erosion of self worth from performing these roles knowing full well you’re not really contributing anything has to be stopped. More time for life – family, personal improvement, exercise, cooking etc etc – would make for a much happier society and more productive workers even in a shorter working week. More productive workers and a growing population (which we haven’t had for a long time given our constant exodus of working age Scots) are what we need for Scotland to prosper. More attractive working hours and terms will attract the world’s best to our industries which will in turn nurture our homegrown talent.

  7. I’m not knocking this paper when I say the notion of a shorter working week was promoted (by occupational psychologist’s amongst others) some twenty or so years ago. The basis for promoting a 3 day week (not 4 as here) was that technology meant there was no need for a smaller and smaller proportion of the population to work with the remainder becoming idle with reduced incomes. It’s nice to see that someone has rescuscitated the notion and, better still, found ways in which to put it into practice. If there was full employment with a 3 day week (and I don’t think there would be a need to recuce incomes just because of the reduced hours as money circulates), just think how much quality time one could have with one’s family with very little, if any, reduction in output in most workplaces as dead time-filling periods could be avoided.

    One personal experience years ago convinced me a full working week on most routine activities could easily be compressed into a much shorter period with no loss of output. I was working in the The War Department – we called a spade a spade in the 1960’s – and I was asked to take over some of another colleagues work as we were short of staff. Eventually I was doing my own job and all of his but I felt exploited. I could have managed both jobs in about 9 hours per day but sat alone in my office reading books for an extra 3 hours each day just to claim payment compensatory overtime to make up my wages to roughly the equivalent of two. It was a crazy setup but there was no way I wished to do two people’s jobs and be paid the wages of one.

    Now that I am retired and finding it impossible to fit everything I would like to do into a longer day (I sleep less) I’m wondering what benefits a shorter working week would have for pensioners. Family life ought to improve, more attention could be paid to the youngest in the family at home at in school, people could be more sociable, less stressed. That would do for starters.

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