Charles Siegel is the organizer of the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative, an advisory initiative calling on the city, state, and federal governments to pass laws that make it easier to choose part-time work and other flexible working arrangements, which won last November with more than 78% voting yes. He is the author of The Politics of Simple Living, as well as other books on a variety of subjects, including economic growth, city planning, architecture, politics, and classical literature.
1MFWF: If more people start working fewer hours, how could that possibly be good for our economy at large?
Charles: We know that shortening hours would work economically, because it is working. Average work hours in western Europe have declined steadily since the end of World War II. In 1950, average hours in the Netherlands and Germany (for example) were much longer than in the United States, and now they are about 20% shorter. The Netherlands and Germany have healthy economies, stronger in some ways than the American economy.
In the United States, hours declined steadily from the beginning of the industrial revolution until World War II. In 1840, the standard work week was 72 hours, and in 1940, the standard work week was 40 hours. It is only after World War II that hours stopped declining. The American economy was successful while hours were declining.
But maybe we should ask a different question. We tend to worry about whether policies are “good for the economy.” We should also ask whether the economy is working in a way that helps people live satisfying lives.
Any basic economics text says that the purpose of the economy is to provide goods and services that people want. Yet we tend to think that people exist for the sake of the economy and to forget that the economy exists for the sake of people’s well-being.
1MFWF: How could a shorter work-week benefit the environment?
Charles: To put it in simplest terms: if people choose to work less and consume less, then they will also pollute less.
A study named “Work Time and the Ecological Footprint of Nations” did international comparisons and found that reducing work hours by a given amount reduces ecological footprint by even more. People with shorter hours produce and consume less, and they also are likely to choose less destructive forms of consumption. For example, they have time to cook from scratch rather than eating frozen foods or fast foods.
1MFWF: Is there anywhere in the world that is embracing the concept of work-time choice, and what results are they seeing?
Charles: The Netherlands has gone the furthest in allowing work-time choice. They began promoting shorter hours and part-time work in the 1980s. In 2000, they adopted the Working Hours Adjustment Act, which gives employees the right to choose part-time work, unless the employer can demonstrate that “serious business or service interests” make part-time work impossible for that employee.
As a result, about one-half of all Dutch employees now work part time. In many businesses where all all the employees work part time – including businesses with professional employees, such as law firms.
One obvious result is that the Dutch are able to choose the work-life balance that best fits their own needs. People can choose shorter hours if they want more time to care for their pre-school children, if they are getting old and want to semi-retire, or if they want more time for their own interests.
Another result is lower unemployment. When the Netherlands began to increase part-time work dramatically, employers hired more people to make up for those who were shortening their hours, and the unemployment rate fell from 13% in the mid-1980s to 6.7% in 1996 – the lowest rate in west Europe at the time. We don’t hear about it in the United States, but in the Netherlands, they call this “the Dutch employment miracle.”
1MFWF: “Simple living” can be a scary idea for people who might think it means giving up comfort. Does simple living have to mean sacrifice?
Charles: There are international surveys that ask people how happy they are, and they show that self-reported happiness stops increasing when a nation reaches about half of America’s per capita gross domestic product.
In The Politics of Simple Living, I suggest policies that would let people downshift economically and live more simply and also make life more satisfying.
One of these policies is choice of work time. This would make life more satisfying, because it is voluntary. People would choose shorter hours only if they believed that their lives would be better with more time, rather than more income.
Another set of policies would create more walkable neighborhoods. Since the end of World War II, federal policies and local zoning laws have encouraged us to build sprawl suburb where people drive every time they leave their homes. Since the 1990s, the New Urbanists have been building neighborhoods similar to the old streetcar suburbs that Americans built before World War I. Housing in these walkable neighborhoods sells for a premium over equivalent housing in sprawl suburbs, because they are more livable.
Another set of policies would cut the cost of health care. Americans spend about twice as much on medical care as people in the other industrial nations, but we have worse health.
People who talk about simple living tend to emphasize cutting back on shopping, which is worthwhile but may sound like a sacrifice to some people. If we look at what people spend most money on, we see that three factors are the key to why West Europeans can work shorter hours than Americans: they have walkable cities, they have much lower health-care costs, and they have lower levels of inequality than we do.
Dealing with these three issues would not require sacrifice. It would make our lives easier and more satisfying.
Learn more from Charles about the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative: