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  • Pierre Smith Khanna

Time On Our Side


This title appears a little optimistic. In fact, it could do with an interrogation mark; that would make a little more sense. For individuals living in cities, urban life seems antipathetic to time. Whether they want to or not, city dwellers get caught up in the bustling, fast-paced lifestyles now endemic to their habitats. Between travel, work, caring duties, catching up with friends and reading a newspaper (let alone a book) all of which are increasingly punctuated by internet-browsing interludes, you’re surely not alone in feeling like there simply isn’t enough time to do it all. Indeed, over half the worlds population currently live in an urban area - a trend which is set to grow, reaching 70% by 2050.

More generally, our societies are also increasingly threatened by this thing called time. The persistent erosion of natural resources and the looming threat of climate change act as constant reminders of the world’s precarity. Wasting away natural resources is one thing. But that we aren’t doing enough to curb climate change is quite another: the 2-degree tipping point is becoming more tangible by the minute, and unlike resources, threatens the rich as well as the poor. As Ban Ki Moon put it: “The heat is on. Now we must act.” Seen like this, time appears decisively set against us.

And yet, none of this has deterred the New Economics Foundation (nef) from titling their latest publication just that - Time on our side: why we all need a shorter working week. Bringing together a host of experts from different disciplines, the book argues that a shorter working week is not only desirable for reasons that may be obvious to those with godforsaken work hours - but can also provide a solution, and maybe even the solution, to an unstable economy and attempts to mitigate climate change, while keeping everyone on the same payroll.

All of this may seem a little absurd and too good to be true. Work less and get payed the same? What a lovely prospect. Yet this is precisely what Juliet Schor argues in her opening essay ‘The Triple Dividend’, which proposes to reduce unemployment by reducing our working hours. The reasoning is simple: rather than earn more money, above-average earners should use productivity gains to work less hours for the same pay. For Schor, this has the dual advantage of removing the stigma attaching longer hours to higher status and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Less money to spend and more free time means less consumption of energy-intensive stuff and more time to think about whether you really want to buy that stuff in the first place.

This may be an overly optimistic view. Why would the wealthy sign up to become - on the long run - less wealthy in comparison to the rest? The implications of many of the book’s recommendations are fundamentally anti-capitalist in a Webberian sense. It doesn’t, however, shy away from this difficult fact. Weber had imagined that a certain ethic must be adopted by workers in order for modern capitalism to thrive: the ‘traditional’ ethos was for workers to respond to higher wages by doing less work, whereas the modern (Protestant) ethos was to systematically gain more and more (something Webber thought unnatural). What Schor and most of nef’s book argues for is a return to this ‘traditional’ ethos, which implies a zero-growth policy. The book attempts to make this malediction a little easier to digest by extolling the many virtues and benefits a zero-growth policy could have - ranging from ecological benefits, to individual welfare and gender relations.

One can quite easily think of other advantages to a shorter working week. In fact, out of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK and the US, both Germany and the Netherlands work the least hours per year - 1,408 and 1,377 compared with Britain’s 1,650 - and live significantly better lives while enjoying economic prosperity: the Netherlands ranked 4th in this year’s World Happiness Report while Germany remains Europe’s financial and political bedrock. This may well have something to do with reducing inequality thanks to the wealthy working less, which itself would bring about a host of positive effects for society as spelt out in Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, or simply having more free time to foster meaningful relationships - a winning formula for happiness according to the infamous Harvard Grant Study.

This latter point is picked up by several essays in the book, most notably Mark Davies’ essay ‘Hurried and Alone’ which argues for the equal distribution of two key resources: time and money. As he underlines in his concluding paragraph:

“Living life at such incessant speed in the pursuit of greater financial resources to fund our excessive consumer lifestyles, we are seldom aware of the seriousness with which we need urgently to address the fact that we are now living on borrowed money, for sure, but also on borrowed time.”

Despite the sensible-enough nature of this remark, and of the essays more generally, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen. It’s surprising enough for economists to come out the closet and argue against mainstream theory - I mean, let’s be honest, when’s the last time you heard someone from the FED or the Bank of England talk about zero-growth as a valuable end? For such ideas to be taken up by leaders and proposed as policy is an entirely different ball game. As Tim Jackson puts it in his essay ‘The Problem with Productivity’: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.” People will retort that the Netherlands and Germany wouldn’t be where they stand today if it weren’t for their high competitiveness (ranked 8th and 4th worldwide) which, along with other economic indicators, helps attract investment, business and growth.

Tim Jackson isn’t convinced. To him, growth is not only unlikely, “but sometimes positively unpalatable.” Competitiveness and productivity - two supposed spearheads of growth - do not even necessarily lead to growth:

“If labour productivity increases faster than output does, then unemployment can rise even with a rise in the GDP: hence jobless growth. Conversely of course if labour productivity stabilises or declines then it’s possible for employment to rise even without a rise in the GDP.”

Unemployment leads to higher welfare costs, which spurs higher public spending, higher levels of sovereign debt, which can only be off-put by future tax returns, hedging all bets on future growth. Such is the cycle we are stuck in.

The big question is this: how to make an economy work when it isn’t chasing productivity and continual growth. Certainly productivity can be useful; try to imagine a life without calculators or water pumps. On the other hand our devotion to it can also be harmful - think of the doctor who’s asked to treat more and more patients per hour, or a teacher who has to teach bigger and bigger classes. Time is truly precious and as such deserves to be on our side - nef’s book has outlined how this can be possible. What is so crazy about reducing unemployment by shedding individual work hours and opening up the job market? Ironically, the idea of spending more time thinking about how we spend our time may be the most productive activity we can engage in at present.

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna