Disposable time needs to be more equally distributed between rich and poor

November 22, 2012 8:00 pm

By Anna Coote

There’s a gathering consensus in favour of developing the ‘human element’ in government and public services.  There’s equal enthusiasm for more ‘shared responsibility’ between the people who are paid to provide services and those who are supposed to benefit from them.  More in the way of relationships; less in the way of top-down interventions.

It’s an enlightened notion: people matter.  But it’s in danger of being ground down by three major problems. One: the public purse is squeezed so tight that efforts to improve things are impossibly constricted.  Two: there’s a widening gap between rich and poor, producing a cruel inflation of distress, discontent and disorder.  And three: there’s growing demand for benefits and services, driven by the effects of inequality and an ageing population afflicted by chronic disease and frailty.

This is where time comes in. Paid and unpaid time: who has how much of each.  The way time is distributed is both cause and effect of unequal distributions of money and power.

Of course we all have the same number of hours in the day, but some have much more control over time than others.  Some have too much ‘free’ time because they can’t get jobs.  Some work long hours to earn a living and then go home to more hours of childcare and housework: they are often poor in time as well as money.

There’s a case for shortening the paid working week – both to create more jobs for the unemployed and to give people who already have jobs more time to spend outside the workplace.  Time to be parents, carers, friends and neighbours, time to organise and agitate to change things, time to prepare healthy meals, to learn, invent, create, take exercise, have fun…

However, this must be for everyone, not just the better off.  A move towards shorter working hours will have to be matched with a move towards higher hourly pay: a living wage that can be earned not in forty hours a week but in, say, thirty.

That would make it easier for citizens to share responsibility for helping themselves and each other. It could help to increase the volume of high-quality care without spiralling costs. If disposable time were more equally distributed between rich and poor, it would be easier to grow the ‘human element’ in government and services without widening inequalities.  It could also enrich the quality of democracy, which depends on everyone – not just the ‘political classes’ – having enough time to engage and participate.

Shorter hours could reduce the numbers of unemployed claiming benefits and help keep people in work when orders are low, retaining and building skills.  It could enable more women to stay in work when they have children, more men to spend time with their families. It could help to cut absenteeism and sick leave, and to create a more rounded, stable workforce. There’s no correlation between working long hours and economic success.  Across Europe, the countries with shorter average working hours, such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, tend to have the stronger economies.  The claim, often heard on the political right, that moving to a shorter working week would damage the UK’s global ‘competitiveness’ is simply not true.

What’s more, there’s a growing body of evidence that shorter paid working hours are kinder to the environment. People have more time to walk and cycle instead of driving , to go by train instead of flying, to cook instead of buying energy-intensive ready-meals, to buy fewer ‘labour saving’ devices and to repair things instead of chucking them out and buying new ones.

This is something that needs to be developed over a decade, gradually changing expectations and patterns of behaviour.  We could start by taking a leaf out of the Netherlands’ experience: in the 1980s, new entrants to the labour market were taken on for a four-day week, beginning to build a habit of more balanced living.  The Netherlands still has the lowest average working hours in Europe.

There would need to be better incentives for employers, so that they are rewarded rather than penalised for hiring more workers. But above all, the case for a shorter working week highlights the urgency of tackling low pay.

Anna Coote is Head of Social Policy at the new economics foundation

This piece was commissioned as part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • Hugh

    France has pretty extensively tried a 35-hour working week hasn’t it? To my knowledge it’s not had great success in keeping unemployment down.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    It’s a very rosy article that doesn’t really address the economic impacts.

    If you cut working hours then in many occupations you inevitably cut output, particularly service occupations. If you then propose the keep worker incomes constant given a fall in output then the cost of that output will rise which itself has an impact as some goods and services become more expensive.

    In respect of Germany/Denmark/Netherlands I wonder whether shorter working hours are an effect or benefit of a strong, productive economy rather than the cause.

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