Work-time reductions are often invoked by anti-capitalist and post-growth literature. And yet, there is nothing anti-capitalist about a shorter workweek. Over the past 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution triggered an unprecedented acceleration in economic growth, working hours have fallen sharply. Alessio Terzi writes that today’s conversations over a three-day weekend are not a paradigm shift but rather a continuation of the paradigm we have seen for over two centuries.
The shorter work week seems to be upon us. As part of an overhaul of the country’s labor laws, Belgium recently decided to give workers the right to demand a four-day week, as notoriously workaholic Japan since last summer. Spain has also been piloting such a device since 2021, as has Iceland. Given that long working hours are often associated with profit rather than people, this type of news might seem to suggest that a consensus is gradually emerging to move away from a “capitalist obsession with profit” and “the societal obsession with economic growth” that results. Such a reading would be understandable, especially since reductions in working time have often been invoked by anti-capitalist and post-growth literature. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
As I say in my latest book Growth for good, in essence, economic growth is about expanding the frontier of possibilities and at the same time meeting a growing list of needs and wants. It is precisely the fact that we can now do more with less, thanks to innovation, which enables people to have more of the good things, including more leisure, and fewer working days.
Over the past 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution triggered an unprecedented acceleration in economic growth, working hours have been on a steep downward trend. When Thomas More fantasized about an ideal world in his famous book Utopia in 1516, he imagines that one day people might work “only” about 2000 hours a year. That’s more than an average worker saves today altogether OECD countrieswith the exception of Mexico and Colombia. In 1870, workers in most industrialized countries today worked more than 3,000 hours a year, which equates to 60 to 70 grueling hours a week for 50 weeks a year. That’s about double a normal work week today. In the USA, a typical worker in the 1880s faced a six-day work week, consisting of 10 hours a day. In 1940, the typical work schedule was 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
It was Henry Ford, not exactly an anti-capitalist, who introduced the 2-day weekend in 1926, while keeping the same weekly wage, guided by the idea that with more free time, his employees would buy more cars. In a 1926 interview, Ford said: “Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market, as workers need enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles..” In other words, at the societal level, far from representing the end of a system based on profits (capitalism) and growth, the reduction of working time (or more free time) can be seen as a means of ‘allocate the fruits of past economy and productivity. growth.
Today’s conversations on a three day weekend are not a paradigm shift but rather a continuation of the paradigm we have seen for over two centuries now. A good example comes from a comparison between the United States and Europe. The latter has notoriously shorter working hours than the former. And yet, until the 1990s, working hours between Western Europe and the United States were pretty much the same, just like productivity levels. Then the Europeans chose to use part of the product of growth to increase their leisure. As a result, GDP per capita levels are lower in Europe than in the United States, while overall economic well-being is probably comparable all things Considered. But the fact remains that reductions in working time did not lead to the demise of capitalism or the complete abandonment of economic growth as a political goal.
Similarly, after decades of protracted growth, rich countries are now those with the shortest hours of work. by global comparison. A pattern that is also reproduced in Europe where, against all stereotypes, the Greeks work much longer (41.8 hours per week) than the Dutch (30.3). The moral of the story should be obvious. Reductions in working time are possible today precisely because of past innovations and economic growth, which have widened the limits of what is possible. As such, a new push to shorten the workweek is not antithetical to capitalism, or a mortal blow to a system centered on sustained economic growth. At most, the reduction of working time can be seen as part of an attempt to improve the contribution of growth to the well-being of citizens. In the future, and regardless of government regulations or employer policies, it is entirely possible that the digital revolution, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, will allow us to reduce unnecessary travel times, further increasing both leisure and productivity. No one knows exactly what the future holds, but it’s fair to say that where there is growth, there is abundance, including free time.
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Alessio Terzi – Political science
Alessio Terzi is the author of Growth for Good. He is also a lecturer at Sciences Po (Lille) and an economist at the European Commission. Alessio holds a doctorate in political economy from the Hertie School.