Anders Hayden writes at Solutions:
Since the Industrial Revolution, two main motivations have driven the movement for work-time reduction. Free time away from the job improves individual well-being, while reducing work hours can cut unemployment by better distributing the available work. These historical motivations for work-time reduction have been joined by a new rationale: the need to reduce the impact of human societies on the environment.
The urgency of reducing humanity’s impacts on the earth is well documented. Estimates of our ecological footprint suggest that we need 1.5 planets to sustain current consumption practices, while studies of humanity’s “safe operating space” have concluded that we have already crossed some critical planetary boundaries, including safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Two dominant responses to this threat have emerged. One has been to carry on with business as usual, pursuing endless economic expansion while downplaying or denying the severity of environmental problems. But in some countries, business as usual has given way to a second paradigm: the idea of green growth through eco-efficiency and low-impact technologies. While laudable, evidence to date suggests that such efforts do not go far enough, as steady production and consumption growth frequently outpaces eco-efficiency improvements, resulting in continued increases in environmental impacts. Sustainable outcomes also require ideas of sufficiency, which see a need to limit the relentless expansion of output. Work-time reduction would be one way to do this that could also improve well-being.
Noticeable differences already exist among wealthy nations in terms of average hours worked per employee, which, in combination with hourly labor productivity and the percentage of the population that is employed, determine a nation’s level of production. Since the 1970s, a gap has emerged between long-hours nations, such as the United States, and several shorter-hours nations in Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. This gap in work hours had become, by the mid-1990s, the main factor behind the United States’ greater output per capita than Europe.
In effect, in recent decades, American society opted almost exclusively for higher output, while Europeans chose to use at least part of their increase in hourly productivity for greater leisure. They have done so through a range of measures, including standard workweeks of less than 40 hours (e.g., France, Netherlands, Denmark); paid vacations of five or six weeks per year (several countries); generous parental leaves (e.g., Scandinavia); educational and sabbatical leave options (e.g., Denmark, Belgium); and rights for employees to choose shorter work hours while keeping the same hourly pay and prorated benefits (e.g., Netherlands).
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