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Could Working Time Reduction Policies Save People and the Planet? A dossier by PATRICK LÉON GROSS, LAURA WEDEMEYER, Caroline Schenck, and bettina chlond

"A certain amount of idleness is necessary for the development of a higher culture." - Miguel de Unamuno: Plea of Idleness.

Already back in 1908, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno invited his readers to challenge the rise of technocratic and efficiency-driven modernism, and to think of contemplation - the act of deep reflective thought - as a cultural practice necessary for human development. In contemporary modern societies, his critique has regained relevance: although the global GDP and employment levels rise, happiness levels have not kept pace and many people complain about depression and stress. After all, there is one resource that humanity can neither multiply, trade nor accumulate: time.

The importance of GDP as a way of measuring prosperity is debatable and may be discussed playfully in a card game where participants learn about the pros and cons of the GDP as an indicator of prosperity. This card game called Growth Quartets is downloadable for free on the following website.

How Do Societies Conceptualize Time?

There seems to be something universal about time: most countries share an understanding of time as linear and endless, operationalized by the Georgian calendar system. They conceptualize a “lifetime” as structured into the three phases of youth, employment, and retirement, and they align key public policies with this chronology. Similarly, the workweek of 40 hours has been adopted by most industrialized economies. The way we think and organize time, it seems, represents a natural law.

But time is as much nurture as it is nature. The international standard of time measurement - known as (UCT) , for example, was agreed upon no earlier than in the late 19th century as a way to facilitate international trade throughout Europe. Today, the latest EU decision to scrap daylight saving time demonstrates that the ruling of the clock continues to be challenged. As a socially constructed pillar of the modern life architecture, our time regime shapes and is shaped by the lived experience of millions of people every day.

Time as Well-Being: The Pace of Life Project

Cities speed up as they grow. Adopted from the Pace of Life project.

One illustrative example of the dynamic nature of time is The Pace of Life Project. In the experiment, researchers secretly timed the walking speed of thousands of pedestrians in major city centers across the globe from New York to Berlin to Singapore. Already in the early 1990s, they found that people in large cities move faster, tend to help each other less, and suffer higher rates of coronary heart diseases than people in smaller cities. Moreover, after repeating the study 20 years later, they observed that the overall pace of life across all cities had increased by more than 10%. The biggest changes were found in the fast-growing economies in the East, with cities like Singapore (30%) and Guangzhou (20%) speeding up the most, and now ranking atop the fastest moving cities globally. As cities get faster with increased size and as they speed up over time, their inhabitants face physical and social health hazards. This will become increasingly relevant in the future, as urban spaces continue to grow.

To read more about the project and find out where your city is ranking, visit the Pace of Life Project Website.

Why Should We Care About Time?

Our systems of meaning shape our concept of time, and this concept, in turn, shapes our reality. As our time regime is the product of social meaning-making, we can craft it in ways that are supportive of managing contemporary societal challenges.

Time and the Environment

In the Anthropocene, it seems overdue that we reevaluate the social and economic rules, conventions, customs, and expectations that emerge from our understanding of time. After all, the regenerative cycles of natural systems are no longer synchronized with the accelerating speed of socioeconomic activity (Fath et al, 2019). News around biodiversity loss and climate change can be read as stories of timelessness on humanities' way to overshooting delicate planetary boundaries. Ironically, most attempts at slowing ecological degradation aim at speeding up the pace of technological development, energy efficiency, and international communication.

This leads us to the discussion on a linear versus a circular or doughnut economic system reflecting the fact that we inhabit a finite planet. Food for thought on this debate can be found in downloadable texts which highlight the pros and cons of economic growth on the following website:

Time and Social Inequality

In addition to its ecological ramifications, time use is not always fairly distributed amongst all members of society. Some people have to work late-night shifts, get below-average wages per unit of time, or need to work full-time to remain above the poverty line. Simultaneously, others enjoy financial security and experience full autonomy to freely allocate and enjoy their time as they please. Not surprisingly, this inequality strongly correlates with other privileges at the intersections of class, race, place, and gender.

Working Time Reduction Policies

The solution to an economy that benefits both people and the planet could lie in a different appreciation and enactment of time as a political instrument. By intervening with the societal distribution of daily, weekly, yearly, or life working time, working time reduction policies aim to achieve exactly that (Pullinger, 2014). But as we will explore throughout this dossier, working time policies do not only harbor great potential. They also touch upon delicate questions of power, poverty, gender, environmental justice, and technological change.

The History of Working Time: A Tale of Technological Change and Political Intervention

Driven by technological advancements and political reformism, the distribution of working time has fluctuated strongly throughout history. In medieval times, when most people worked as farmers subsisting of their land, working time was unevenly distributed across seasons: especially low during the winter and high during seeding and harvest season. Thus, holidays in the rural societies could take up about one third of the year.

The Industrial Revolution brought about a steadier rhythm of work, but the workload increased heavily to 16 hours on six days of the week. As a response to concerns over employee health and fuelled by productivity gains, four waves of working time reductions have emerged in North America and Europe:

  1. The ten-hour day: Between 1850-1900, major European countries like the UK, Germany, France, and Sweden implemented the ten-hour work day.
  2. The eight-hour day: Between 1890-1920, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Sweden and Italy implemented the eight-hour work day.
  3. 40-hour week: Between 1930-1980, as pioneered by France and Henry Ford in the US, major industrialied countries began to cap working hours to a maximum of 40 hours per week.
  4. The 35-hour week: Between 1995 and 2000, Germany and France implemented the 35-hour week for specific industries like the printing and metal manifacturing.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that in a hundred years time his grandchildren would only have to work 15 hours per week while maintaining the same standard of living (Keynes, 1930). However, weekly working hours in industrial economies have not declined much since the 1960s, with the exception of Germany and France, and countries in which the spread of part-time jobs has lead to a fragmentation of individual work time biographies. In fact, neoliberalism has eroded collective work time regulations and resulted in an increase and polarization of work hours since the 1980s. Today, it is mostly small reductions of the weekly and yearly work time that are on the agenda of negotiations between labor unions and employees.

Overview on Work Time Reduction Experiments. Own compilation.

The Different Models of Working Time Reduction

The above timeline gives an overview on the various working time reduction models and phases from the peak of the Industrial Revolution until today. It furthermore demonstrates a selection of case studies that explore the benefits and disadvantages of different models to reducing working time since 1850. The different working time models that have been studied on a political and organizational level are diverse and range from involuntary short-time work to the four-day workweek to free-time payments instead of higher wages.

Evidently, working time reductions have a rich history, and the field is continuously evolving. Decision-makers can choose to reduce working time in many ways, and this pluralism of options involves difficult trade-offs. The next section will explore the potential benefits and challenges of working time reductions for contemporary societies at the individual, organizational, and societal level.

Impact on Human Well-Being

Working Hours and Happiness

Happiness as a function of working hours in different countries. Own graph with data from ILO and World Bank.

There seems to be a striking correlation between working hours and individual levels of happiness. The above graph shows that less work leads to an increase in subjective well-being. These findings are supported by Alesina et al. (2005), who find that people who have more vacation days and work less hours tend to be happier. Furthermore, Artazcoz et al. (2009) show that more work leads to health issues like sleep shortages and hypertension. Similarly, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work points out that stress and burnouts have shown to increase due to increased work. If working less is good for us, why don't we just do it?

How Easy is Working Less?

Reducing working hours comes with challenges. People who work less typically earn less, and income losses have been associated negatively with life satisfaction and a loss of social status. Moreover, individuals who remain in part-time for more than seven years are less likely to be promoted than individuals who return to full-time employment earlier. Part-time work in higher positions is therefore rare, even if people have the legal right to work part-time. Eroding social security systems present barriers to working time reductions in some countries. In the US many employees can only afford health insurance if they work extra hours, and there is no law which enforces employers to insure part-time workers. Fitzgerald et al. argue that therefore it is vital to politically intervene with the labor market to enable working time reductions. Now that we have explored why individuals might (not) want to reduce working time, why should organizations care?

Working Time Reductions as Crisis Management at VW

At the end of 1993 Volkswagen (VW) introduced the 28.8 hour working week to secure employment during an economic crisis. This allowed the company to keep its qualified labor force within established working structures. Two years later, an employee survey showed that the workforce of VW accepted the 28.8-hour week due to the enhanced job security. However, most respondents lamented a reduced household income, financial problems being mainly associated with a larger number of children and whether households have access to other sources of income. In addition, respondents complained about increased pressure on individual performance due to the shorter working time. Despite these caveats, the case of VW shows that working time interventions can enable companies to solve crises without having to dismiss their employees. How can we translate these insights to the societal level?

The Role of Social Institutions and Culture

Society-wide working time reductions could lead to collective increases in well-being and reduced unemployment rates. Implementing such nation-wide policies is however complicated by the dynamics of social interaction. People constantly compare their own consumption and income levels with those of others. As most people in Western societies are wired to value economic growth, this implies a reinforcing feedback loop, in which people are unlikely to reduce their own income and consumption level to lower standards. Hall et al. highlight the need for more research on how to foster supportive institutional and social norms. These are crucial to elevate reduced-load career strategies to a robust and vibrant vehicle for social change. The role of cultural norms is also central for a thorough understanding of the relationship between time use and gender inequality.

Work Hours and Gender (In)-Equality

Countries with more equitable gender roles tend to work fewer weekly hours on average. Own graphical presentation with data from ILO and Human Development Report.

The graph above shows that countries with more equitable gender roles tend to work on average fewer weekly hours. This general trend obscures however the massive individual differences in the distribution of working time between men and women within households. In the aftermath of working time reductions at VW, Seifert and Trinczek showed that the intervention reinforced traditional family structures and gender roles in households: men worked more on house repair and gardening while women engaged in housekeeping activities like shopping, cooking, washing, and cleaning. Overall, this led to an increase in working time for women. Women were nevertheless more satisfied with their new situation than men, as they managed better to balance needs of the household and the workplace.

Impact on the Planet

Does Social Well-Being Imply Environmental Well-Being?

Protecting the environment from threats like population growth and the rise of consumption-intensive lifestyles is one of the great challenges of the 21st century (IPCC, 2014, p. 46). Most environmental mitigation strategies operate however under the assumption that environmentally friendly behavior falls prey to the quality of life of the individual (Brown and Kasser, 2005, p. 349). This perceived conflict has been challenged by new insights from behavioral and experimental economics (Gowdy, 2008; Kasser, 2017; Venkatachalam, 2008). In fact, environmentally friendly consumption patterns (Kasser, 2002; Welsch and Kühling, 2010; Xiao and Li, 2011) and voluntary commitment to environmental conservation correlate positively with subjective well-being (Schmitt et al., 2018; Suárez-Varela et al., 2016).

While working time reductions can increase well-being, their environmental benefit is not self-evident. While Gunderson (2019) argues that working time reduction policies can reduce negative environmental impacts, Buhl and Acosta's (2016) results are more ambiguous. According to them, a reduction in working hours does not necessarily imply that people follow solely environmentally friendly hobbies, as the newly gained leisure time also allows them to pursue activities that have a larger ecological footprint, from jetskiing to cooking at home.

The discussion on how working time reduction policies can be implemented to have a positive effect on the environment remains underdeveloped. Buhl and Acosta (2016) recommend implementing additional policies to restrict the negative ecological impact of time gains. Similarly, Pullinger (2014) argues that complementary policies (e.g. policies to influence the fertility rates, and to increase state subsidies for green R&D) are necessary to realize potential synergies between well-being and environmental protection.

'There is more to life than work’ -- Here is a collection of quotes about the relationship between work and quality of life proposed in a didactic method to reflect your personal understanding of work and success:

Can Working Time Reductions Safe the Climate?

Taking a global point of view, climate scientist David Rosnick analyzes the impact of reduced working hours on climate change over the rest of the century. He argues that an annual average of 0.5 percent of working hour reductions could contribute to eliminate one-quarter to one-half of global heating. Despite this promising perspective, Rosnick asserts that the mitigation potential strongly varies with different climate change scenarios.

Calculations of estimated changes in temperature (ºC) since 1990 in relation to average working time — baselines versus reduced hours. The figure includes corresponding alternative emissions scenarios shown by the dotted lines. Source: IPCC and Rosnick (2013).

The above figure shows that the different IPCC scenarios imply a range of sensitivity between global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the high-sensitivity A2-ASF scenario, working hour reductions could prevent 1.3 of the 5.8 degrees of average warming projected; according to the low-sensitivity B1-IMAGE scenario, the policy could merely reduce global heating by 0.3 degrees compared to the 1.0-degree business as usual.

Click here to read more:

Working Hours and the Climate: Germany

In a report from 2019, the German Environment Agency estimated the effects of reduced working hours on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions (Schumacher et al., 2019) . The authors develop three scenarios which vary the implementation of working time reduction, wage compensation, and the use of additionally available time. It is found that energy consumption and emissions depend strongly on income levels. This is due to rebound effects, where time gains are used to engage in consumption-intensive activities: the wealthier the person, the more she will consume during her freetime. However, the study did not account for the emission reductions that emerge as a result of reduced labor input into the production of CO2-intensive products and services. Moreover, changes in transport demand play a central role when commuting to work is no longer necessary due to the reduction in working hours. The study nevertheless provides tentative evidence for that there might be a dilemma between an ecological orientation of working time reduction and the expected positive social consequences.

For more details on the study click here:

On Rebound Effects

What do rebound effects mean for the potential of ecologically sustainable consumption, including subjective perceptions of time? This is the focus of the inter- and transdisciplinary research project ReZeitKon funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. ReZeitKon is the German acronym for Time Rebound, Time Wealth and Sustainable Consumption. In the related working paper on time wealth, Jorck et al. (2019) explain that the project aims to “empirically investigate the significance of time rebound effects for (ecological) sustainable consumption, under specific consideration of subjective time perception.” Their definition of time wealth includes the five dimensions of “tempo, plannability, synchronization, time sovereignty and free time", assuming “that a sustainable lifestyle requires a certain amount of free time (e.g. for environmentally friendly mobility, informed purchasing decisions, repair work, collaborative consumption or greater self-sufficiency).”

To better understand rebound effects, you can explore the topic with the aid of the comics which explore the questions of how efficiency and rebound effects relate, and how rebound effects can be mitigated:

Civic Engagement: A (Timely) Manifesto for Deceleration

Is time running too fast for you? Why not decelerate with a Not-To-Do-List or a Keinkaufszettel (Non-Shopping-List)? As the concept of time wealth is moving to the center stage of discussions around social and environmental well-being, the Austrian “Verein zur Verzögerung der Zeit” (Association for Time Delay) has drawn up a manifesto of time wealth. Therein, the group critiques the increasing acceleration of time and the individual perception of timelessness as root causes to the ecological crisis. Hence, they advocate for the autonomy to freely allocate one's time in alignment with one's individual needs as well as nature's regenerative cycles as a human right. According to the association’s rules, the members pledge to “pause and reflect, where blind actions and particular interests produce apparent solutions.” The non-profit and non-partisan association is affiliated with the Fakultät für Interdisziplinäre Forschung und Fortbildung (IFF) of the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt. The association’s name aims to provoke but also aims to highlight the fact that we often do not take sufficient time to make ‘wise’ decisions. In consequence, we end up spending too much time dealing with self-induced crisis management. To live a life of quality is also about spending and living your time wisely.

For further intruiging information, go to:

Building Back Better

In early 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak created a global standstill as if a virtual stop button had been pushed or a handbrake pulled to have us question our relationship with time. The global crisis represents an opportunity to rebuild modern economies in ways that promote a better quality of life and well-being - both for people and the planet. How has this played out so far?

Ambassadors of Change

Within only a few weeks, the onset of the COVID-19 crisis has changed the global economic order, with measurable effects on human and environmental well-being. Some people are increasingly forced to work from home and part-time, while others have lost their jobs. This has had a negative impact on aggregated levels of consumption. Due to the increase in remote work, urban traffic has declined which contributed to a significantly improved air quality. Another trend is that the number of short-distance business flights has decreased, sparing both the climate and bird wildlife. As COVID-19 continues to challenge the time regime of societies all over the world, economic, social and ecological impacts will be significant.

Strong Tailwinds for Work Time Reductions in Politics

Governments all over Europe have tied rescue loans to shaky industries like airlines and tourism to conditions of social and environmental performance upgrades. The German Employment Secretary, Hubertus Heil, started to discuss a new working hours model in which he advocates working from home and more flexible working hours to become the "new normal" after the crisis. Similarly, in the Netherlands, 174 scholars have drawn up a manifesto to craft a radically more sustainable and equal world after the crisis. One of their five demands is to implement: “an economic framework focused on redistribution, a strong progressive taxation of income, profits and wealth, and reduced working hours". The manifesto also discusses the unconditional basic income as a way to increase time wealth and to enable a better usage of one’s own time with family and friends, or voluntary work.

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