All work and no play

Shorter work­weeks can help the planet

Midtown Post - - Life - DAVID SUZUKI David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Na­ture of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy (with files from Ian Han­ing­ton).

In 1926, U.S. au­tomaker Henry Ford re­duced his em­ploy­ees’ work­week from six eight-hour days to five, with no pay cuts. It’s some­thing work­ers and labour unions had been call­ing for. Ford wasn’t re­spond­ing to worker de­mands; he was be­ing a busi­ness­man. He ex­pected in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity and knew work­ers with more time and money would buy and use the prod­ucts they were mak­ing. Ford, then one of Amer­ica’s largest em­ploy­ers, was ahead of his time — most work­ers in North Amer­ica and else­where didn’t get a 40-hour work­week un­til af­ter the Sec­ond World War.

Since stan­dard­iza­tion of the 40hour work­week in the mid-20th cen­tury, ev­ery­thing has changed but the hours. If any­thing, many peo­ple are work­ing even longer hours, es­pe­cially in North Amer­ica. This has se­vere reper­cus­sions for hu­man health and well-be­ing, as well as the en­vi­ron­ment.

Un­til the Sec­ond World War, it was com­mon for one per­son in a house­hold, usu­ally the old­est male, to do wage work full time. Now women make up 42 per cent of Canada’s full-time work­force.

In 1930, renowned econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes pre­dicted peo­ple would be work­ing 15-hour weeks within 100 years. We’re clearly not on track to achieve that. As we reach the com­bined tip­ping points of over­pop­u­la­tion, re­source over­ex­ploita­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and cli­mate change, we may no longer have the lux­ury of tak­ing our time to make nec­es­sary changes.

Rather than re­duc­ing work hours to spur con­sumerism, as Henry Ford did, we must re­duce both. We have to get be­yond out­dated no­tions and habits like planned ob­so­les­cence, excessive pack­ag­ing and pro­duc­tion of too many un­nec­es­sary goods.

Econ­o­mist David Ros­nick, au­thor of a 2013 Cen­ter for Eco­nomic and Pol­icy Re­search study on work hours and cli­mate change, ar­gues that re­duc­ing av­er­age an­nual hours by just 0.5 per cent per year through shorter work­weeks and in­creased va­ca­tion would “likely mit­i­gate one-quar­ter to one-half, if not more, of any warm­ing which is not yet lockedin.” A shorter work­week would also re­duce rush-hour traf­fic and grid­lock, which con­trib­ute to pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change. It could help re­duce stress and the health prob­lems that come from mod­ern work prac­tices, such as sit­ting for long hours at com­put­ers. And it would give peo­ple more op­tions for fam­ily care. A tran­si­tion won’t nec­es­sar­ily be easy, but it’s time we stopped ap­ply­ing 20th-cen­tury con­cepts and meth­ods to 21st-cen­tury life.

Henry Ford re­duced his em­ploy­ees’ work­week without cut­ting their pay

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