Saturday, 13 February 2010

What's wrong with a 21-hour week?

THERE's nothing I like more than someone flying the flag for part-time working, obviously.
So in some ways, hurrah for the report from thinktank the New Economics Foundation arguing everyone should work a 21-hour week, then do good deeds for each other (and the planet) in their new free time.
It highlights the madness of millions of Britons working miserably long hours, while others are unemployed but would love to work. Why not share it out? After all, that's how we ended up with a five day working week: six days was standard, until the Great Depression made us divvy up what little work there was.
But then again: um, not so hurrah. The report does gloss over the slight technical difficulty that working 21 hours means, well, getting paid for 21 hours.
Author Anna Coote's argument that many of us 'live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume' - so why not consume less, and not need to work so much - does resonate. I did used to feel trapped in a mad cycle of working long hours to earn the cash to pay for stuff (nanny, house nearish the office, gin) that let me, um, work long hours.
But that's really a middle class professional argument. What about the very many people who earn to eat, and pay rent? How do they manage on 21 hours of pay?
Apparently, we will all now have time to grow our own food, and walk or cycle everywhere instead of driving, thus saving money and carbon.
Which sounds lovely, and it's true I've rediscovered both my bike and some half-used seed packets since giving up. But this has not, sadly, compensated for halving my income.
In fairness the report does suggest a higher minimum wage, presumably to help those who needed to work long hours. But how is that affordable? If everyone halves their hours (and salary), we pay less tax and NI to the Exchequer. How do we then fund public services, pensions, and benefits?
If it sounds like I'm carping, I am. But only because this report makes me confront two tricky questions.
Firstly, its suggestion that if we had more time we'd all be 'better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours' makes me feel guilty. Beyond the loaded question of whether stopping work makes you a better parent (and believe me, there are days when I think the nanny did a better job)I'm not really spending my new free time to the benefit of society. (I do some voluntary stuff, but then I always did.) Definitely food for thought.
And secondly, it reminds me that choice has consequences. Going part time may be great for the individual, but if enough of us do it we'll deprive the public purse of cash (because we're paying less tax)that might have reached people needier than us.
Which makes me wonder: is stopping work ultimately a selfish act?


  1. The report comes from the NEF who have Economics in their title. Forgive me - but they don't seem to have passed GCSE economics. Have they heard about fixed and variable costs. I have fixed costs - such as heating electric, £8000 train ticket. I cut my hours to 21 per week and you know what. My fixed costs stay the same. If only I could afford to work less - and me and the wife have no kids! I wonder how many of the NEF staff will be taking the advice of the author. I of course think I know the answer.

  2. I work 20 hours per week, with an occasional couple of hours now and then. I chose part-time work after my husband left and I felt the long hours I was working was too difficult to manage as a single parent if I still wanted to have a relationship with my daughters.

    Of course I get paid less than my colleagues, and part-timers tend to get overlooked for promotions or training, but I don't regret my choice. My daughters are older now, and I could probably work longer hours, but once again I choose not to. I'd must rather finish work at 12.30pm (after an 8.30am start), have some lunch then take the dog for a walk.

    We can all get caught up in the race to earn more more more, but it doesn't always make you happy. Nobody has ever said, on their deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."

  3. Sometimes it takes a forced change to make people reassess how they spend their hard-earned cash, and what they really need to live on. I'll exclude from this argument those living on on near the poverty line, for whom every penny and pound counts and who simply can't manage on less, in fact could do with more.

    A friend of mine went onto half pay during sick leave, and discovered that she could actually live on half her pay, yes with a dramatically changed lifestyle and no costs associated with work. She also realised that the creative pursuits she picked up to help her cope with being ill made her feel happier and has made the decision to return to work part time now she's well again, so she can do other things with her time. Yes she'll be paying less tax, but the improvements to her mental and physical health might be worth the reduction in receipts to the treasury, she might save the health service some money in the long run.

  4. I think a world where part-time work (or rather non-standard work hours) was the norm looks sufficiently different from the current one that I am not sure anyone can say with confidence "tax receipts would go down". Clearly many families can survive financially with reduced work hours; after all a family with a stay-at-home parent (of which there are many) is presumably fiscally equivalent to a family with two parents working 25 hours a week. However socially, these two families look very different.

    The real question (let's not fool ourselves) is what happens when *men* voluntarily work part-time, since the female part-time workforce is already large. There are plenty of societies (or micro-societies) where this is the case - for example those subsisting on fishing where the boats go out early and are back by midday. In the best of cases the extra time fosters a sense of community, growing of local food, a present male role model for kids, and so on. In the worst of cases that means more time to get drunk and go home and beat the wife. I don't think one can make sweeping statements about the social effects of increased leisure time across class, cultural and economic lines.

  5. I don't see a problem with working 21 hours. Just so long as I can have two 21-hour jobs, I'll keep up with the bills. (Aside: if everyone was forced to work just 21 hours so that jobs could be "shared out", I assume the authors of the report would be happy to rock up to A&E at 3am with some dire illness and be treated by the person to whom the job has been shared. Utter piffle and nonsense.)