The Work Less Movement
It's One Way To Create A Healthier Society
Do you live to work, or work to live? These days it's hard to tell who the real workaholics are. For many of us the pressure's on to put in longer hours -- without extra pay. The result? Higher stress, less leisure time and greater fatigue once home. This has stoked a number of movements devoted to cutting work hours and distributing jobs among more people. Do these kinds of initiatives stand a chance in today's economy?
According to Arthur Donner, one of Canada's eminent economists, such programs are timelier than ever. Donner chaired the federal government's Advisory Group on Working Time and the Distribution of Work back in 1994. His committee concluded that limiting the work week and spreading jobs to more employees would improve the federal budget, reduce welfare and Employment Insurance bills, decrease unemployment and boost leisure time.
Sound a bit utopian? Maybe. But this hasn't stopped a reduced work hours movement-cum-political party from operating right here in Canada. The Work Less Party (www.worklessparty.org) is based in British Columbia. Currently it's fielding about a dozen candidates at the provincial level.
Bruce O'Hara is the party's contender in the riding of Comox Valley, about two hours northwest of Victoria. In his book Working Harder Isn't Working (New Star Books), O'Hara promotes a four day work week. 'Despite decades of rapid growth, high unemployment has become a permanent fixture of the BC economy,' he notes. 'It has pushed down wages and pushed up taxes.' Sounds a lot like what Ontario's going through.
To O'Hara and his confederates, one solution is to shrink the number of hours per employee. According to his group we've trapped ourselves in a rat race where no one is winning. 'It has resulted in a declining quality of life, and is becoming so environmentally unfriendly as to verge on suicidal behaviour,' say O'Hara.
Statistics suggest The Work Less Party is no Chicken Little. Studies show Canadians are putting in at least 15% more hours on average than they did in 1970. A typical employee in our country works 1790 hours yearly. In the U.S. it's a little higher, at 1820 hours. Greece clocks in at a frenzied 1930 hours. As for Europe, where the 35 hour work week has been sacrosanct for decades, France is at 1560 hours, with Germany, the engine of the European Union, at an almost slovenly 1450 hours.
But if Europe is employment's canary in the coal mine, we'd best brace ourselves: in the last six months both France and Germany have had to boost their work week -- for no additional pay -- just to stave off massive plant closures!
Donner attributes this mainly to globalization. The western world is competing against a wider array of foreign countries. China, India and South America, for example. Also Eastern Europe. He goes on to make a startling observation: 'Here at home there is growing economic and job insecurity -- both among firms, managers and the workforce. Not since 1930's has it been this rampant.' Donner points to the irony that vacation entitlements are better than ever yet white collar workers in particular often don't, or can't, use their full allotment. They are too busy to be away for long or worry they'll be seen as expendable in their absence.
A decade ago Donner's Advisory Group was pro four-day work week, with fewer work years over the life cycle; fewer days per year; shorter work days; compressed work week schedules; early/phased in retirement; paid or unpaid leaves; and sabbaticals. Their rationale? Overall, it would benefit society to distribute employment more equitably over a broader segment of the population.
Yet Donner concedes that business has resisted intensely. He cites the auto industry, where they generally schedule 48 hour work weeks, preferring to pay overtime than add new employees. 'The fixed costs of bringing people aboard can be prohibitive. You must take into account such expenses as training, pension contributions, Employment Insurance, Worker's Compensation and severance.' The result is an incentive to flog existing staff until they break, especially those on salary.
In spite of current circumstances, O'Hara suggests there is hope for a better future. It begins with each of us taking a hard look at the way we're choosing to live. For instance, if you've become a slave to your consumption habits, consider cutting back somewhat. Then we can act as models for change, including 'cleaning up the sloppy spending habits that happen when you're overworked and overstressed.'
Sure this advice flies smack in the face of our driven consumerism. However Donner, whom no one would conceivably deem a radical left winger, clearly spells out the benefits: less fear of being downsized, more leisure time to spend with family or doing other things that give you pleasure, reduced taxes and greater freedom.
Hmm maybe all of this really is a way to slowly but surely take back our lives. Or could it merely be an insidious plot to dilute our economic vigor?
That's something you'll have to decide for yourself. In the meantime, you might consider boning up on your employment rights and doing some financial planning. This will better prepare you to make some genuine choices regarding your own work/life balance. Also, check out other related sites, such as Work to Live (www.worktolive.info), Shorter Work Time (www.swt.org), Time Sizing (www.timesizing.com) and Take Back Your Time (www.simpleliving.net/timeday).
With all that's happening around us, it's not a bad time to start pondering the bigger issues. O'Hara reminds us that 'It is unsustainable to have productivity going up every year while wages and buying power are stagnant. We need either time off or more pay.' The Work Less Party, whose true aim is to generate awareness that choices are possible, not necessarily to win seats, may well be part of an emerging backlash against overwork. If so, we might yet achieve what Donner has been urging us to do all along: increase our overall quality of life, restore our mental health and let more people share in what prosperity there is.
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