In Canada, you may find a candidate from an unusual party standing in your local elections. Activist Conrad Schmidt is the head of the Work Less Party, who campaign for a 32-hour work week under the motto ‘Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams’. While this may sound rather tongue in cheek, there is in fact a sensible economic principle behind Schmidt’s party. The problem is efficiency:
“Since the 1950s we have had a 400% increase in productivity as a result of manufacturing technologies” he explains in a recent Ecologist article. “In just 11 hours of labour today we can produce the same amount of goods as somebody working for 40 hours in the 1950s. Today, for the economy to function we must consume 400% more than we did in the 1950s.”
In other words, our increased efficiency means we’re constantly creating new surpluses of goods for the market to absorb. If the market can’t absorb them (ie we stop shopping), jobs will be lost. That’s partly what happened during the Great Depression, when vast surpluses of food were burned in some parts of the US to protect the market price, while people went hungry in other areas.
Our consumer society still relies on us to absorb huge surpluses. Consider fashion for example. 3% of farmed land and 20% of fertilisers are dedicated to growing cotton, providing cloth for the textile industries across Asia, many of which operate under sweatshop conditions. The end result is high street clothing, which we all buy, wear and discard as they wear out or the fashions change. We throw away 900,000 tonnes of clothing every year in the UK, and two thirds of shoppers admit to having thrown away clothes without ever wearing them. It’s a remarkably perverse way to prop up GDP, but it’s by no means unique. We throw away a third of the food we buy as well.
We work longer hours than we used to, but if we only bought what we needed, we could afford to work less. As Jeffrey Kaplan wrote in Orion Magazine last year: “We are quite literally working ourselves into a frenzy just so we can consume all that our machines can produce. Yet we could work and spend a lot less and still live quite comfortably.”
A low-growth economy would reverse the consumption vs leisure choice. Instead of maxing our the economy, we’d switch off when we had enough. By Kaplan’s calculations, if we consumed at 1991 levels, we could all work 5.3 hours a day. If we consumed at 1948 levels, we’d only need to work 2.7 hours a day. Perhaps I’m just lazy, but if the best way to save the economy, solve the debt crisis and break the cycle of endless consumerism is to work less, count me in.
One objection might be that if there was less work overall, there would be an unemployment crisis, but there wouldn’t be if that work was shared around better. During the Great Depression the working week was shortened as part of the New Deal, to keep as many people in work as possible. One notable experiment in working hours at Kellogg’s saw shifts reduced to six hour shifts. This allowed the company to employ twice as many people, each working shorter hours. That meant a pay cut for some staff initially, but in the end it was so popular that the unions voted to keep it long after the depression. Kelloggs worked on that basis right through until 1985, when a rival faction in the union voted for a return of longer hours.