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How Fewer Working Hours Can Save Our Health, Economy, and the Planet

Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives.

Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives. They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time. It’s a way of life that undermines basic sources of wealth and well-being—such as  strong family and community ties, a deep sense of meaning, and  physical health.

Imagining a world in which jobs take up much less of our time may seem utopian, especially now, when a  scarcity mentality dominates the economic conversation. People who are employed often find it difficult to scale back their jobs. Costs of medical care, education, and child care are rising. It may be hard to find  new sources of income when U.S. companies have been laying people off at a dizzying rate.

But fewer work hours for people with jobs is a key step toward solving the unemployment crisis—while giving Americans healthier lives. Fewer hours means more jobs are available to people who need them. Living on less pay usually means consuming less, making more of the things one needs at home, and living lighter, whether by design or by accident.

Today, driven both by necessity and the deliberate choice to live simply, more Americans are shifting toward fewer work hours. It’s a trend that, if done correctly, could get us out of our current economic crisis and away from unsustainable economic growth.

Finding Time

Water fountain piggyback photo by CSuspect

Photo by  Chris Suspect.

Economists today focus solely on growth as a mechanism for job creation. But for much of the industrial age, falling hours have been roughly as important a contributor to employment as market growth.

The grueling schedules of the 19th century undermined health and prevented people from achieving what we now call quality of life. Hours of work in the United States began to decline after about 1870—from about 3,000 a year to 2,342 by 1929. In 1973 annual work hours stood at 1,887 (fewer than 40 hours per week, on average). If hours hadn’t fallen, unemployment would have grown even before the 1930s Depression.

Since the 1970s, Americans have been working longer. According to government survey data, the average working person was putting in 180 more hours of work in 2006 than he or she was in 1979. The trends are more pronounced on a household basis. Many more men are working schedules in excess of 50 hours a week. (Thirty percent of male college graduates and 20 percent of all full-time male workers are on schedules that usually exceed 50 hours.)

Not surprisingly, over the last 20 years, a large number of U.S. employees report being overworked. A 2004 study found that 44 percent of respondents were often or very often overworked, overwhelmed at their jobs, or unable to step back and process what’s going on. A third reported being chronically overworked. These overworked employees had much higher stress levels, worse physical health, higher rates of depression, and a reduced ability to take care of themselves than their less-pressured colleagues.

But there are recent signs that a culture shift toward shorter hours has begun. In 1996, when I first surveyed on this issue, 19 percent of the adult population reported having made a voluntary lifestyle change during the previous five years that entailed earning less money. In a 2004 survey by the Center for a New American Dream, 48 percent did.

The stagnant economy, difficult as it is, represents an opportunity for expanding the norm of part-time work. In the first year of the recession, many businesses avoided layoffs by reducing hours through furloughs, unpaid vacations, four-day workweeks, and flex-time. By mid-2009, one study of large firms found that 20 percent had reduced hours to forestall job cuts.

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