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This particular focus on work has come at the expense of another, far more radical policy goal, that of creating “less work”. Yet the pursuit of less work could provide a route to a better standard of life, including a better quality of work life.
The idea that society might work less in order to enjoy life more goes against standard thinking that celebrates the virtue and discipline of hard work. Dedication to work, so the argument goes, is the best route to prosperity. There is also the idea that work offers the opportunity for self-realisation, adding to any material benefits from work. “Do what you love” in work, we are told, and success will follow.
But this ideology is based on a myth that work can always set us free and provide us with the basis for a good life. Economists may cry foul that a reduction in working time will add to firm costs and lead to job losses (mainstream economics accuses advocates of shorter work hours of succumbing to the “lump of labour fallacy” and of failing to see the extra costs of hiring additional workers on short-hour contracts). One retort to this is that longer work hours are not that productive. Shorter work hours may actually be more productive if they increase the morale and motivation of workers. In practice, we could achieve the same standard of living with fewer hours of work.
But the more profound question is whether we should be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero hours for others. Surely we can achieve a more equitable allocation that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want? A reduction in work time would offer a route to such an allocation.
There is also the deeper issue of whether we should be measuring the value of our lives by what we produce. The cult of productivity crowds out other more “leisurely” ways of living that can add to human well-being. Challenging this cult and seeking ways to lighten the burden of work could allow us all to live better lives inside and outside of work.
The essential ideas of the above writers resonate still today. They cut through romantic views of work and show how human progress depends on society performing less work, not more. Although developed in radically different ways, their ideas point to a future where the burden of work is lighter and more time is available for free creative activity. At least in the case of Marx, there is still the prospect of turning work into a fulfilling activity, but the latter objective is seen as achievable only within the context of a situation in which work time is reduced. Less work is seen as a necessary foundation for better work.
Ultimately, the reduction in working time is about creating more opportunities for people to realise their potential in all manner of activities including within the work sphere. Working less, in short, is about allowing us to live more. Let’s work to achieve it.