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How Less Work for Everybody Could Solve a Lot of Our Economic Turbulence and Make Life More Pleasant

"Job creation" isn't the only answer.

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Of course, it is unrealistic to imagine such large changes occurring overnight, but governments can certainly attempt to encourage employers to shorten workweeks and increase vacation and other paid time-off. In fact, this is the real secret of Germany's post-crisis recovery. Germany's growth has been no better than growth in the United States since the start of the downturn, yet its unemployment rate has fallen by 2.0 percentage points – while unemployment in the United States has risen by almost 4.0 percentage points. The difference is that Germany encourages firms to reduce work hours rather than lay off workers.

These stories show that it's indeed hard to really separate policy from culture, but perhaps shifting the latter is part of the work radicals and reformers alike have failed to do. In Dissent Magazine, Mark Englerargues that by pushing for more jobs over a better balance between work and life, progressives have "ceded" the tempting ground of leisure and personal happiness to the very corporations that exploit workers. Citing ad campaigns that urge workers to take back their lunch hours, he asks, shouldn't this be the job of the left?

In past decades, and certainly since the most recent economic downturn, the demand from liberals—and even from those further to the left—has been for jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Rarely have progressives focused on demands like reducing work hours, lowering the retirement age, protecting and expanding vacation, and implementing job-sharing schemes—all of which might be better paths to full employment. The reason is simple: if everyone wasn’t forced to work so hard, there would be more work to go around. 

Engler cites the work of Juliet Schor and the concept of a "plenitude" economy over a profit-driven one. It's the idea of a great slowdown to counter the Great-American speedup. But it can't happen without our help. We need a willingness to let go of the idea that every hour working is somehow more valuable than an hour of our own time. Work should not be the only conferrer of dignity and status. Essentially she posits that if we all worked four days a week, and spent the rest of our time nourishing ourselves, the environment and each other, we'd be "better equipped to weather the economic and climate storms that will be more likely in coming decades." She tells us we have no other choice:

 "Ultimately a progressive economic vision is one in which our economic arrangements yield a sustaining planet, creative work and fair distribution. The business-as-usual economy is failing miserably on all those fronts."

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at

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