Saturday, March 28, 2009

In defence of the three day week

In the face of declining revenues, the New York Times has imposed a 5% pay reduction on its staff. In recognition of this they have given them ten extra days off as compensation. I'm sure people will take it. There can't be many other places that Times staffers can go. They aren't the only employer who are introducing some form of reduced working hours. These moves are being presented as desperate measures for desperate times. Maybe they're a harbinger of something more permanent.

Thirty years ago people speculated that the working week would get shorter and everybody would have something called "leisure time". What actually happened was the people with high status jobs devoted more time to work - not because they needed to but because they liked it that way. I think for a lot of people "busy-ness" is a pose. We talk about our increasingly busy lives as if they're a function of the modern consumer society. They're not. Compared to a peasant farmer we're all dossing. If we're so all-fired busy how have we managed to find time to watch TV or play with Google Street View or blog? One of the great achievements of "The Office" was that it hinted that office politics fill the vacuum that used to be occupied by productive work.

The greater truth is we always find time to do the things we want to do. In the current climate a lot of people are going to find that they can do what they have to do in far less time. It won't make anyone richer but it might make us better off. The shorter, more intensive working week may be here to stay.


  1. Does anyone else remember futurologists in the 1970s predicting that new technology would leave us so prosperous and with so much spare time that finding ways to fill it could present considerable social problems?

  2. Yes. I remember going to a talk by a leading trade unionist of the time, Barrie Sherman, who had just published a book called The Collapse of Work, on exactly that theme. As a man of the left he rightly highlighted the tensions that would be created as not everyone would have the resources to enjoy the increased leisure time.

  3. I can't think of anything more healthy than less work and less money.

    More social sounds like a winner too.

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  5. I would take less work and less money right now. I detest work and find it makes people sick, first mentally and then physically. So let's hope shorter weeks are here to stay. Recommended reading includes Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness" (1932 -
    One thing, Malcolm Gladwell makes the very interesting point in ‘Outliers’ that compared to peasant farmers (in the pre-industrial West, admittedly) we are working ourselves into the ground. This is because of the seasonal nature of crops. If part of what you do involves waiting for stuff to grow, you get a fair bit of time off to dedicate to loafing.
    Work and petty workplace hierarchies have caused immeasurable harm to people. There is no nobility in that foul and artificial swamp. The sooner it has been replaced, the better for all.