Is work consuming our lives? Does it crowd out the real sources of our well-being? The way we work in contemporary developed countries, and particularly in the USA and UK, was the subject of Mike Harris’ talk at last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Café – along with a set of proposals put forward by the New Economics Foundation designed to change things for the better, the 21 Hours agenda. Working for my car

Philosophers have often suggested that work is essential to being human – but that, conversely, there are degraded forms of work and truly human ones. Karl Marx famously argued that industrialisation brought with it a condition of alienated labour, in which people had to work to accumulate objects, first to survive and then as signifiers of social status. Humans, Marx suggested, are different from animals because of their drive to transform the world around them in line with their imaginations. Yet the wage-labour system prevents people from determining for themselves how they will develop and use their creative capacities.

For Hannah Arendt, being human was characterised by natality, that is, the capacity to make new beginnings, to put something novel into the world – be it a child, a tool or work of art, or a political system. Work that is not organised to allow creativity, however, prevents this genuinely human capacity from being realised.

What are the barriers to reshaping work in ways that make it more expressive of what Marx and Arendt see as our truly human, creative capacities? Mike suggested the key is the attitude to time that is built into the way we work now, and how it pressures us to squeeze productivity out of every minute we have to work in. In addition, working hours are shared out inequitably, forcing some to work far more than they want to, with others unable to get as many as they need in order to achieve a reasonable standard of living.

The drive to consume mirrors the drive towards turning every moment of time into a productive moment – one spent at work. Away from work, individuals accumulate more and more consumer goods. But these patterns of work and consumption exert a heavy toll – on health, via stress and overwork, and on the environment, through overconsumption of luxury goods and processed foods by consumers with no time to prepare meals and seeking to compensate themselves for having little time left over at the end of the working week. These costs are not balanced, in official measures, against gross domestic product: only higher productivity is counted.

Mike described how Nef sees an alternative, the “21 hours” agenda, in which society gradually moves towards a “new normal”, in which the standard working week is progressively reduced towards a goal of 21 hours, enabling work to be shared further and more widely. The benefits of such measures would be felt at the level of well-being, as people found themselves with more opportunities to undertake different activities, socialise with family and friends and become active within their communities. In addition, they would have economic benefits – healthier workers and more diverse workplaces, but also potentially higher GDP, as statistics demonstrate there is no necessary link between more hours worked and higher output. Despite challenges (low pay, employer objections and public attitudes), Mike pointed to examples from the Netherlands and the USA. In the 1980s, the Dutch government began appointing employees on 4-day-week contracts. This “new normal” spread to other sectors, beginning (surprisingly!) with the financial sector. In the USA, several states have experimented with subsidizing companies to create part-time posts, enabling a wider sharing of working hours.

Could this work here? In discussion, participants identified a number of obstacles that they saw as needing to be overcome – from the reorganisation of the school day in tandem with the working week, to the problem that the cost of living (including childcare and rents or mortgages) is so high that more hours have to be worked in order to cover necessities. One audience member suggested that we already have a model for the shorter working week – the experience of many women who find themselves having to do a full-time job on restricted hours while also looking after children. This is not, she suggested, something we would want to emulate more widely.

Mike suggested that time is, once again, key to understanding how to tackle such problems. What has to be avoided is the compression of work into less time, which simply compounds the problem: what is needed is, in effect, less work – perhaps including less emphasis on abstract productivity and performance targets. It was pointed out that the gains from more productivity in recent decades have been unevenly distributed – towards the 1% and away from the “99%”, and that ownership of companies was an important factor in determining what work is for (a point which Marx would recognise). Mike responded by suggesting that reduced working hours in the EU correlate with stronger trades unions – and that the ability of workers to determine how their capacities should be used is key to reshaping work.

Another participant pointed out that the benefits system, as it is currently set up, effectively outlaws the unemployed from engaging in productive activity other than seeking waged employment, no matter how little it supports their well-being. Why not allow unemployed people to express their creativity and abilities in other ways, by growing food, learning practical skills and then trading their abilities within alternative economic frameworks like time-banking?

The audience largely agreed that the endless cycle Marx describes, of working for products one consumers in order to continue working, presented a complex and tangled picture. Exactly where to intervene in order to change things radically presented formidable problems – but the “21 hours” agenda might offer a “wedge strategy” for effecting genuine change.

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