Daily Planet: All work and no play

Shorter workweeks can help the planet


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Henry Ford reduced his employees’ workweek without cutting their pay

In 1926, U.S. automaker Henry Ford reduced his employees’ workweek from six eight-hour days to five, with no pay cuts. It’s something workers and labour unions had been calling for. Ford wasn’t responding to worker demands; he was being a businessman. He expected increased productivity and knew workers with more time and money would buy and use the products they were making. Ford, then one of America’s largest employers, was ahead of his time — most workers in North America and elsewhere didn’t get a 40-hour workweek until after the Second World War.

Since standardization of the 40-hour workweek in the mid-20th century, everything has changed but the hours. If anything, many people are working even longer hours, especially in North America. This has severe repercussions for human health and well-being, as well as the environment.

Until the Second World War, it was common for one person in a household, usually the oldest male, to do wage work full time. Now women make up 42 per cent of Canada’s full-time workforce. 

In 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted people would be working 15-hour weeks within 100 years. We’re clearly not on track to achieve that. As we reach the combined tipping points of overpopulation, resource overexploitation, environmental degradation and climate change, we may no longer have the luxury of taking our time to make necessary changes.

Rather than reducing work hours to spur consumerism, as Henry Ford did, we must reduce both. We have to get beyond outdated notions and habits like planned obsolescence, excessive packaging and production of too many unnecessary goods.

Economist David Rosnick, author of a 2013 Center for Economic and Policy Research study on work hours and climate change, argues that reducing average annual hours by just 0.5 per cent per year through shorter workweeks and increased vacation would “likely mitigate one-quarter to one-half, if not more, of any warming which is not yet locked-in.” A shorter workweek would also reduce rush-hour traffic and gridlock, which contribute to pollution and climate change. It could help reduce stress and the health problems that come from modern work practices, such as sitting for long hours at computers. And it would give people more options for family care. A transition won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s time we stopped applying 20th-century concepts and methods to 21st-century life.

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