Friday, 19 December 2014

The Working Week

What is it to be alive?  For most of the globe occupation defines existence, confines character and consumes the majority of our conscious thought, yet so few of us are lucky enough to find ourselves in an enjoyable or even rewarding career.  The average working week in the developed world varies between 35 and 48 hours, a daily routine of rising, showering, breaking fast, family responsibilities and commuting. After a similarly time consuming evening sequence, all that remains of the day for leisure are at best 4 or 5 hours; and these when all energy is spent. 

The planet's population has now exceeded 7 billion people. Over the last 10,000 years, with the development of farming from hunter-gathering, technological innovation has continued to increase the efficiency by which our basic human needs are provided for, the surplus value bringing a diversity of choice. Marx's tendency of the rate of profit to fall, in fact drives the frequently exponential progress of technological efficiency, yielding such phenomena as diversity and the EU butter-mountain. Over the last few decades, the same dynamic has steadily increased unemployment figures. In the coming decades we will see the same trend as buses, taxis, hauliers; eventually all automotive transport becomes unmanned. A safer world, though one with bleak prospects for many.

The steady increase in the number of unemployed US citizens since 1950, today in excess of 20 million people.
A long-term solution must be found for the unacceptable and inevitable levels of mass unemployment. If only to avoid a similar recurrence of the early stages of the 20th century, or to quote the economist "Over the summer Bank of America faced intense criticism after a Stakhanovite intern died."

Like many in recent news articles I have begun to consider the pros and cons of a reduced working-week, critically: with no reduction in salary. Just over 160 years ago in the UK men, women and children were asked to work 7 days a week, until legislation introduced in 1850 in the British Labour Act limited the hours of work for women and children to no more than 12 hours per day and no later than 2pm on Saturdays!  It wasn't until 1921 that the International Labour Organization established the convention of a weekly rest day, with a subsequent amendment in 1930 stipulating a maximum of 48 hours for those in "Commerce and Offices", even today these limits remain, or for many occupations in the UK may be wavered by contract. So why should change be beyond consideration, when we haven't been working five days a week since the dawn of time!

In lesser skilled sectors, I would be lying if I were to tell you that reducing your company's working week to four days is going to increase profit. Though it is the lesser skilled roles which are going to disappear over the next few decades.  Few companies dependent upon contracts, which must be completed to a schedule, would announce they practice a four day week or a reduced number of hours. Contracts would be lost, clients refusing to foot the bill for such philanthropy. Consequently there are few business voices in favor, yet many public sector and Democrat proponents of a reduced working week.

For knowledge-workers there are many compelling arguments towards increased productivity. An article in The New Yorker by Maria Konnikova argues:
When we own more of our time, we feel like we’re in charge of our lives and our schedules, which makes us happier and, ultimately, better at what we do. Our health and happiness also increases in the course of our lifetimes and, with it, our value to the workplace and to society as a whole.
Alas, there is no such case for the manual laborer, though I foresee no difficulties incentivising knowledge work by making a four-day-week the norm for those determined to study.

The following graph from the OECD indicates that optimal efficiency is achieved at approximately 1525 hours per annum, or around 30-31 hours per week. 

Whilst the French are enjoying a 35 hour week, the Dutch 29 hours, the Danes and Norwegians 33 hours.  Interestingly, working 28 hours a week would for most people represent working 50% of 7 days.

Elsewhere people have quipped "the robots are coming for your jobs anyway", we'd better start finding ways of paying ourselves the same salary for less work, or critically reorganising work to be more effective when subdivided.

Ultimately, is it reasonable to ask for more than half of a persons life be sacrificed to work?

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