On The 40 Hour Work Week

Maybe this is a bit far-fetched or even overly self-indulgent, but I’m fairly convinced that a reduction in the typical 40 hour work week would solve many of the current social problems facing the US. We live our lives at a breakneck speed, rarely having much time for ourselves between work, family, friends, social commitments, and other obligations. We always desire more hours in a single day, but maybe we need to focus on how we spend those hours, on how we allow our time to be allocated (more on that here). One of my propositions to aid us in stopping the hustle and bustle of life is a not so uncommon idea – reducing the work week from a standard of 40 hours to 30.

By eliminating the typical Monday through Friday 9 to 5 schedule, we can also cut down on traffic, as well as the frustration and environmental harm it introduces. If 30 hours become the norm, rush hour will likely be eliminated. Some people may opt for a 5 day work week with 6 hour days, while others may try to fit in 30 hours over 3 or 4 days. Because of the increased flexibility and variability of work schedules following a reduction in weekly work hour standards, travel to and from work will no longer be concentrated during the normal rush hour times we see today. And the reduction in rush hour activity will mean fewer hours wasted commuting, fewer cars idling in long lines of traffic, less road rage, and likely fewer accidents.

Many employers and corporations would probably argue against a reduced working week because to do so would render their organizations less productive. But if their current employees saw reduced work loads in concordance with their hours, then there would still be work enough to hire new employees. The same amount of output could be achieved by a greater number of people. This has the potential to cut unemployment and underemployment in significant ways. Inequality would incrementally become less of a social problem as more people are gainfully employed.

Others will counter that this change could be financially ruinous – salaries would need to decrease, leaving employees with less disposable income. But maybe a reduction in disposable income among the American people isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Demand for the luxuries of life would fall as would demand for some of those things we consider “necessities” that really are not so (ie. cellphone, cable TV, internet service). This could help realign social values, as reflected by how we spend our money. It could also spur improved relationships – if we don’t have as much money to spend on entertainment and material things, we may just focus on spending more time with one another.

But reducing salaries doesn’t necessitate that people will be unable to support themselves. I’m no economic expert, but if people don’t have the means to pay for goods and services, I’m fairly confident that demand will fall. And the companies that supply said goods and services just may lower their prices to meet this reduced demand – after all, they need some profit margin to stay viable. Cost of living will be forced to adjust based upon the laws of supply and demand. And then once this factors level out, maybe more free time will result in more spending, spurring local economies.

When I had a conversation with my sister about this idea, she countered that more employees would require more health insurance spending on the part of employers. And though this initially struck me as a strike against a new work week standard, I think it could actually work to the advantage of everyone in the long run. As health insurance becomes too costly through the existing employer-sponsored system, many powerful corporations may find themselves proponents of healthcare reform. If it is too expensive for employers to provide insurance coverage to the people they employ, an already much-needed alternative may finally be seriously considered.

Let’s not forget the personal benefits for employees themselves. By working less, we’re likely to have lower levels of job-related stress, but also more time to attend to our health, hobbies, families, and other pursuits. My main motivations for desiring this reduced work week stem from the personal time I would gain. Surely I desire more time to enjoy myself and to see to my wellbeing. But it also seems that many people forget how time can be productively spent outside the workplace. I imagine I’d volunteer more, as lack of time is a major barrier to volunteer commitments currently. More time outside of the office would allow for the pursuit of creative endeavors, philanthropic ventures, improved parenting, and general personal development.

I admit to my idealism. I recognize that cutting the current work week by 25% is a drastic change that could never be made in one fell swoop. I am well aware that I don’t have fact or statistics to back up my seemingly-naive arguments (though I know that some such facts and statistics do exist). I know these arguments are far from flawless given that they are presented on a rarely-read blog rather than a sophisticated platform with voluminous readership. But I also firmly believe that imagining a world where work does not demand so much of our time, where jobs are not considered more important than relationships, joy, or personal fulfillment, is an important first step toward changing our social value system. Consider this a challenge to the status quo whereby we put up with commuting, sending our children to daycare, putting our passions on hold, and sacrificing our health for work. I hope that minds more knowledgeable than mine can utilize their expertise to transform some of these idyll dreams into some semblance of reality.

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