In our family, Christmas means sending and receiving wish lists. This year, my cousin took a very honest approach and wished for (among other things) somebody to come and paint her house, a jacuzzi, a pony, and more free time.
It didn’t help me much in my Christmas shopping, but it does highlight the fact that time – the time we spend at work and the time we don’t – takes a central place in our lives, and the desire for more of it. It is up there in the list of priorities next to the pony.
Collective working time reductions have long been a core demand of labour movements in many countries, and they still are. However, in recent decades the average full-time worker in the EU has not enjoyed any reductions in working time, revealing a halt in the progress towards shorter hours.
Is it therefore time to revive the working time discussion? There are certainly many arguments in favour of doing so.
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Time or money?
Take the experiment carried out by American psychological scientists Gino and Cassie Mogilner. These researchers gave three groups of people a simple task: make a sentence using three words. However, the sets of words given to each group each had a different thematic emphasis: one being money, one time, and the other was neutral. So, the first group got, for example, ‘monkey-money-coffee’, the second ‘monkey-time-coffee’, and the third ‘monkey-fridge-coffee’. Each participant therefore had their minds triggered to think about particular things before being asked to complete a second, mathematical task where they were given an easy opportunity to cheat and gain some money by doing so.
What happened? The ‘money’ group cheated considerably more than either of the two other groups. What was particularly interesting, however, was that the ‘time’ group were the least likely to cheat. The researchers explained this potential link between time and honesty with the argument that thinking about time is intrinsically social. If you had made your sentence using the word ‘time’, quite possibly you would have thought about a monkey having a good time with friends, drinking his coffee. If you had received ‘money’ words, you might’ve though about how many coffees the monkey could buy; obviously a more individualistic and self-centred reflection. (I’m not sure what you would think of in the ‘fridge’ version, I can only tell you that you’d be more likely to cheat than your ‘time’ counterparts.)
So, would having more free time to spend make us more social-minded citizens, and even more honest ones? Difficult to say based on a few isolated experiments, but it definitely gives one food for thought, especially in today’s world where we are encouraged to think about money, all the time. Even the ads about holidays trigger us to think about money as they compete in providing more drinks, more food and more fun at rock-bottom prices.
Individual or collective working time reduction
Maybe we should value time a little more; but how do we go about it? After several years of not getting more holidays as a Christmas gift, my cousin is likely to take the one option that’s available for those who want it: part-time work.
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She would then join the more than 20% of Europeans that work in part-time jobs who are contributing to the average reduction in weekly working hours now underway. As an average figure, the 30-hour week is a reality in the Netherlands, as more than three in four women work part-time and almost one in four men. A similar evolution can be observed in most other EU countries. All this has contributed to a considerable redistribution of employment. Even if some economists say that you can’t redistribute employment through working time reduction, the employment ‘miracles’ of countries like Germany and the Netherlands seem to be doing just that, with more people employed while the total number of hours worked remains stable.
The only problem is that my cousin doesn’t really want a part-time job. She knows it comes with a part-time salary, will endanger her position in her company and will jeopardize any future career opportunities. The free choice for part-time work is often not as free as it seems.
It also risks reinforcing rather than fighting existing gender inequalities. It is still mostly women who are employed on a part-time basis and are bearing the consequences both economically and at home: men are less likely to take up more caring tasks if their wives are working 80% for exactly that reason.
There is, furthermore, a strong correlation between working time and health hazards. Working long hours means being tired, and being tired means being less focused and risking accidents. In many sectors this is still very relevant, and research has shown that particularly in the medical sector reduced hours could prevent a lot medical mistakes from occurring. Limiting working hours is thus not only a matter of personal health and safety, but also that of your colleagues, patients or clients. In a service economy excessive hours mean stress and burnout, but also bad sleep, anxiety, depression, and even heart diseases. Reducing working time might help in fighting these, but only if the work intensity is kept stable and working hours don’t become completely unpredictable.
This year’s Christmas gift
My cousin might have had ‘more free time’ on a very personalised list, but it looks like this is one Christmas wish that could benefit everyone. Moreover, it would serve her more if everybody enjoyed a reduction in working time.
Only a collective reduction of working time can address our serious need for more time, organise and rebalance the already-occurring redistribution of work, fight gender inequalities and keep us safe at work.
In the long-term then, maybe the best gift we could give my cousin is a renewed discussion on how to reduce our working time and a serious reconsideration of it as a normal labour market instrument. The experiments carried out in and the demands made by the German metalworkers’ union may signal such a much-needed revival of the debate.
If we could all agree to give her this gift this year then, I’ll get on with finding that pony.