by Kyle Lewis
In the discussion about the time we dedicate to our work, a turn of 180 degrees has taken place and this is mainly due to the pandemic. This condition raises deep questions about our relationship with work: from targeted hourly reduction programs to extended periods of state-subsidized employment and the normalization of teleworking, the possibility for workers to gain more control over their lives has become quite a tangible goal.
...fans of reduced working hours should take seriously the urgency of these conflicting narratives...patterns of reduced working hours in times of crisis rarely lead to long-term change.
Progressive parties across Europe in particular have shown interest in reducing working hours. In Spain, the coalition government recently announced a €50 million fund for private and public sector testing and pilot projects, while in Scotland, Finland and Lithuania, those in charge have pledged to either consider or work out plans to reduce working days.
But beyond the simple commitments and promises, the reduced working week experiments in Iceland, which began in 2015, have caught the attention of the international media. It turned out that they were also ambitious and bore fruit. More than 2,500 people, or more than 1% of the country's workers, took part in the trials, in which hours without pay were reduced to 35 out of 40 initially. Thanks to them, the unions achieved permanent reductions in working hours.
Of course, things are not one way. The other side of the story, which is slowly being formed and concerns the post-pandemic recovery, emphasizes that people need to work longer hours to "pay off" the debt of the pandemic or to "modernize" the national economy. Introducing his agenda for labor reforms, French President Emmanuel Macron argued that increasing working hours will bring higher incomes for the French economy. In addition, in the German elections in September, the Free Democrats and the Christian Democratic Union voted in favor of streamlining the legislation on working hours, pointing out that in order for the country to keep pace with increased international competition, the rules need to be modernized.
Those who appear to be fans of reduced working hours should take seriously the urgency of these conflicting narratives. As can be seen in our recent work on the subject, patterns of reduced working hours in times of crisis rarely lead to long-term change.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt's 35-hour week simply served as a deterrent to rising unemployment. Entrepreneurs then wanted to return to "normal" working hours as soon as possible fearing that the increase in leisure time could shake the position of work as the "center of life" of the people. Under their pressure, the previous pattern returned and two years after the crisis, working hours in the US returned to forty-five.
In Britain, in the mid-1840s, the Irish potato famine led to a recession and as a result, the factories in the country imposed reduced hours, while when conditions improved, the shape returned to normal. It took almost 30 years since then for the ten-hour working day to finally be legalized.
* Mr. Kyle Lewis is the founder of the British think tank "Autonomy".