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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/25/14

Could a Shorter Workweek Help Save Our Planet and Our Civilization?

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 Could we collectively help save the planet by working (and therefore consuming) less?  This article provides a convincing argument in the affirmative, and an abridged version follows here.

Less work and a more sustainable economy and ecology should have universal appeal in any sane society.  And those two ideas are inextricably linked by the realities of global climate change.  Why?  Because there is a direct connection between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions.  The latter is, as most all of us already know, proportionate to the former.

Simply put, every hour of work we do cooks the planet and its sensitive ecosystems a little bit more, and going home to relax and enjoy some leisure time is like taking this boiling pot off the burner.

Most of us burn energy getting to and from work, stocking and powering our offices, and performing the myriad tasks that translate into digits on our paychecks.  The challenge of working less is a societal one, not an individual mandate.  So how can we allow people to work less and still meet their basic needs?

This goal of slowing down and spending less time at work -- as radical as it may sound -- was at the center of mainstream American political discourse for much of our history, and was considered by thinkers of all ideological stripes to be the natural endpoint of technological development.  But beginning as early as the 1940s, it was mostly forgotten here in the USA -- and strangely so -- even as worker productivity increased dramatically.

Worker productivity has doubled since 1948.  Just to be perfectly clear, and drive the point home: 

With an hour's work, the 'average' worker now produces twice as much in the way of goods and services as s/he did in 1948.  And this huge increase in productivity COULD have been 'transferred' into a reduction of the workweek from 40 hours to 20 hours.  And in some countries, some of that 'transfer' has been made.  To wit:

Working an average of 8.4 hours a day, Americans work an average of 1790 hours per year.

By comparison, the average German worker works almost 400 hours a year less, i.e. 1397 hours.

But instead of reducing the length of the workday, workweek or work year, in America the powers-that-be have chosen to increase the size of the reserve army of the unemployed.  Consider:

*The German unemployment rate has hovered around 5.5% whereas ours has hovered around 7.6%, and if we counted unemployment the same way the Germans do, our rate would be higher still.

*Norway ranks #4 in the world with regard to GDP per capita, while the USA trails at #6.  Yet Norwegians, who produce more than we do, per worker, work far fewer hours per year than we do:  1420 as compared to our 1790.

The environmental consequences of our growth-based economic system 

Our current approach isn't good for the health of the planet and its creatures, and it's not good for the happiness and productivity of overworked Americans, so perhaps it's time to revisit this once-popular idea of sharing work more equitably, which would also mean:

a) fewer hours of work per year for each worker.

b) more jobs available for the ever-growing number of America's unemployed.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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