In Defence of Downshifting and Work Sharing

In the hope of tackling the twin crises affecting the economy and the climate, governments and institutions around the world have echoed environmental groups in calling for a ‘Green New Deal’. Major government investment in renewable energy and other green initiatives would indeed create thousands of new green jobs, but would it address the underlying drive for endless economic growth that many now believe lies at the heart of our headlong gallop toward ecological destruction?

As convincingly argued by Tim Jackson in his groundbreaking book, Prosperity without Growth, the unlikelihood of ‘absolute decoupling’ (reducing resource use while continuing to grow the economy) means that a different way of ensuring economic stability and maintaining employment is necessary. A growing number of academics and activists who recognise the tendency for New Deal economics to rely on a “grow your way out of unemployment” approach are calling for an alternative route to sustainability – reducing the working week and sharing paid employment equitably in a steady-state economy.

A recent report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) makes a particularly compelling argument for work sharing in their proposal for a new ‘normal’ working week for Britain of 21 hours. “While some are overworking, over-earning and over-consuming, others can barely afford life’s necessities,” wrote one of the report’s authors in the Guardian. “A much shorter working week would help us all to live more sustainable, satisfying lives by sharing out paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population.”

In her new book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, Juliet Schor similarly argues for fewer and more evenly spread hours spent in paid employment. A long-time advocate of work sharing, she maps out a vision for a new economics that would not only allow more time for family and community, but would also give people the opportunity to acquire goods and services in more ecologically friendly ways outside of the fossil-fuel intensive market economy.

Making the time to live sustainably

An enduring myth of industrial capitalism is that as technological advances have increased labour productivity, we no longer have to work as hard to meet our material needs. That it takes fewer people to produce the same amount of goods is undoubtedly true, yet prior to the successes of the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, industrialisation drove working hours to their highest level in human history. According to the economic historian, James E. Thorold Rogers, the workers participating in the eight-hour movement were simply striving to recover the amount of leisure time enjoyed by their medieval ancestors. With the push for deregulation over the last few decades, work hours in the most affluent parts of the world have actually started increasing once again, reversing the century-long decline sparked by trade union action.

As governments around the world have prioritised the pursuit of GDP growth as the single most important goal of their economic policy, productive effort has become separated from human needs. Economic activity now prioritises the accumulation of private profit over the securing of basic welfare – the pursuit of ‘what can be done’ over ‘what needs to be done’. The imperative for ever-expanding economic output creates a need to stimulate and satisfy higher and higher levels of consumer demand. Instead of producing the anticipated era of leisure – Keynes himself envisioned a 15-hour week with the work shared as widely as possible – the pursuit of growth for growth’s sake has led to an era of hyper-consumerism and overwork.

There is much less evidence to suggest that the constant ramping up of economic efforts and the commodification of more and more of our time and activities is healthy for social or environmental well-being. In 2004, a study by the NEF found that whilst economic output in the UK has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, life satisfaction levels have remained resolutely flat. Steady-state economist, Herman Daly, suggests that growth in the industrialised world may even have become ‘uneconomic’ in that its social and environmental costs exceed the benefit it brings. Collectively, humanity is already using up the Earth’s natural capital faster than it can be replenished, as evidenced by the work of the Global Footprint Network. All of which begs the question: instead of maintaining a system that maximises economic output and full-time employment, what about creating new arrangements that maximise human well-being and ecological sustainability?

People are already taking the transition to an alternative economic system into their own hands. A movement is growing around the idea of ‘downshifting’ – deliberately choosing to work and earn less in order to live a more fulfilling and simple life. In so doing, people are consciously rejecting the idea that we live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. Such endeavours to redefine ‘the good life’ are not only reflected in individual decisions to downshift, but also in the growing popularity of transition towns, the collective rebuilding of local economies, and the climate justice movement’s vocal critique of overconsumption.

The problem is that downshifting as well as other efforts to counter consumerism are incoherent in modern economic terms. In Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, Madeleine Bunting reveals that while the majority of Britons accept it as self-evident that, for all but the poorest people, overwork ‘is your choice’, there is also a widespread acceptance that this purported power to choose is often exceptionally hard to exercise. It is not only the clear structural bias towards full-time employment that makes it difficult to negotiate flexible working hours, but also the ingrained logic of social comparison – the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ – which constantly upgrades our perceived materialistic ‘needs’ as incomes rise. The widespread sense of having to earn enough to live a ‘normal’ consumer lifestyle, one that is sold to us through advertising and reinforced by cultural norms, reflects the immense structural and social barriers to work sharing that exist in industrialised growth-driven economies.

Overcoming structural barriers

As evidenced by some of the more virulent reactions to the NEF’s 21 Hours report, the proposal to slash the working week and share hours more evenly across the population seems counter-intuitive. How would the poor and even middle-classes cope with losses in income? Wouldn’t government revenues drop and demand for public services rise? How would businesses cover the increased cost of employing a greater number of people for the same amount of work? What about shortages in skills that are already stretched to meet labour demand in some industries?

Although many of these concerns are valid, it is important to remember that work sharing is not a short-term policy solution, nor do its supporters suggest that it should be a sudden or enforced change. No one assumes that the redistribution of paid employment is a panacea for the social and ecological malaise described above. It is instead part of a long-term vision for a post-industrial world in which the economy is transformed to meet the needs of communities rather than the desires of consumers; a sustainable future where the benefits of the planet’s limited resources are shared equitably and protected for future generations.

Importantly, reactions such as that of the Institute for Economic Affairs’, Mark Littlewood, who called the proposal for a shorter working week “fantasyland economics”, reveal how deeply engrained the growth imperative is in today’s economic and social logic. The tendency in orthodox economics to assume that GDP growth is the best measure of economic progress is the greatest barrier to any policies that seek to purposefully ‘downshift’ the economy. Yet it is precisely because work sharing goes against the conventions of the growth paradigm that the idea is so important.

Overcoming the current structural bias toward long and unevenly distributed work hours requires a myriad of economic reforms. These could include income and wealth redistribution (including a substantially increased minimum wage); encouraging uncommodified forms of production and consumption (such as ‘self-providing’ or ‘co-production’); creating new measurements of progress and prosperity; and freeing sources of finance from the burden of interest-accruing debt. Perhaps most importantly, it requires an end to the work-to-earn, earn-to-consume mindset that currently dominates day-to-day life in many industrialised societies.

The fact that the proposal for a 21-hour week has been taken seriously in the halls of Westminster is a sure sign of encouragement, but until a popular movement gathers momentum behind the idea, governments are unlikely to act. In the end, it is up to people themselves to willingly step off the consumer treadmill and demand the right to an even and reduced share of paid work. Instead of accepting the trappings of ‘consumer-sovereignty’, we must demand the freedom not to consume – the freedom to become the producers and creators in a new economy that builds lasting prosperity within ecological limits.

Anna White is the editorial assistant at Share The World's Resources. She can be contacted at anna(at) Read other articles by Anna, or visit Anna's website.

One comment on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. MichaelKenny said on June 5th, 2010 at 11:05am #

    It’s nice to see someone thinking seriously about where the world should go next instead of sitting on the sideline dreaming wistfully of Stalin rising from the dead!