A lot has been written about the changing nature of employment and the challenges that lie ahead in a work environment that is digitally disrupted and increasingly automated. So YoungA21 is embarking on a project called Making Our Future Work, which seeks to hear directly from young people about their hopes and concerns in our turbulent times. In this opinion piece, YoungA21 Committee member Mark Dorman outlines one of the less-considered social benefits that may accompany a change in work culture: the reduced working week.
Since 1985, the average working week for Australians in full-time employment has increased from 39.5 hours to 42.3 hours for men and 36.4 to 38.6 for women (ABS, 2010). More and more, Australians employed full-time say they work too many hours a week and they want to reduce this to increase their leisure time (Henderson, 2014). Employment data reflects the mood, providing evidence that Australians are moving away from full-time work to variable weekly hours, such as shift work and casual work.
Before we collectively decide that people don’t know the meaning of hard work anymore, consider this: research shows that over-working can be detrimental to an individual’s social and personal wellbeing and contribute to wider societal and economic issues. Also, case studies have found that staff members who compress their working week into four days experience increased happiness in their personal and professional lives, and are more likely to achieve their personal goals (Henderson, 2004). Therefore, researchers have suggested that a flexible reduced working week of four days, with no pay reduction, could suit the Australian population.
The upside of a reduced working week
The benefits from a shorter working week would fall mostly into two categories.
There are environmental benefits such as reduced pollution, waste, and carbon emissions. Those who work less have more leisure time for environmentally friendly behaviour alternatives, such as growing food, walking to work and drying washing on the clothes line, as opposed to purchasing food, driving and using a dryer (Rosnick & Weisbrot, 2007).
Secondly, social benefits come from a rise in flexible leisure time. It increases the opportunity for pro-social behaviours such as spending quality time with family, community volunteering, and social activity with friends (Joutsenvirta, 2016). Also, with a population working variable hours, there would be a drop in commute times and crowding in public facilities, allowing reduced stress and increased quality of free time. Say goodbye to peak hour traffic!
In 2008, Utah trialled a reduced working week for a year, in the format of working 10 hours a day for four days a week, and showed how such a change could provide economic and social benefits. After the year, surveys showed a 30 percent reduction in paid overtime and 30 percent reduction in energy use. In terms of social benefits, 60.1 percent reported positive impacts on personal and family life and 82 percent of workers wished the work hours would be made permanent (Osterstock, Behunin and Lehman, 2010).
One of the things that could slow a four day week from being accepted as the norm is resistance to change from the habitual 9-to-5, 8-hour day, which has been shown previously (Levitan and Belous, 1977). It is likely any shift would be more successful if communicated to the Australian public in two main ways. Firstly, workers would have to be given the power to choose their hours, allowing them to control the balance of their social and professional lives. Secondly, the shift would have to be framed as a conscious long-term goal to increase well-being.
In addition, if the total weekly hours were reduced as well as the number of days worked, employers would need to increase staff to compensate, which would cost businesses money (but also create employment opportunities).
Furthermore, while people would have more time for sustainable and pro-social behaviours, they would also have more time for consumption and anti-social behaviours. So the question of what people do with their spare time would influence the net gain or loss in wellbeing and environmental health that comes from more free time (Rosnick & Weisbrot, 2007).
Finding the balance
In conclusion, while we must be aware of the challenges in the changing nature of work – and the vulnerability of many young people in an increasingly automated workplace – we must also navigate this change in a way that capitalises on the potential benefits. Greater productivity could also mean more rest, and more play for everyone.
ABS (2012) Working Time Arrangements, Australia, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, November.
Henderson, T. (2014) The Four-Day Workweek As a Policy Option for Australia: Journal of Australian Political Economy, 74. Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=3d6340b5-51f3-4f35-8df1-36e1b9708fec@sessionmgr107&vid=8&hid=119
Joutsenvirta, M. (2016) A practice approach to the institutionalization of economic degrowth. Ecological Economics, 128, 23–32. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2016.04.006
Levitan, S. and R. Belous (1977) Shorter Hours, Shorter Week: spreading the work to reduce unemployment, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Osterstock,T, J. Behunin and A. Lehman (2010) A Performance Audit of The Working 4 Utah Initiative, State of Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General, July 20.
Rosnick, D., & Weisbrot, M. (2007). Are shorter work hours good for the environment? A comparison of U.S. and European energy consumption. International Journal of Health Services : Planning, Administration, Evaluation, 37(3), 405–417. http://doi.org/10.2190/D842-1505-1K86-9882
Van den Bergh, J. C. J. M. (2011) Environment versus growth – A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth.” Ecological Economics, 70(5), 881–890. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.09.035