Time on our Side

I have productive friends. My previous post drew on Melissa Benn’s What Should We Tell Our Daughters?  This one draws on Time on Our Side, Anna Coote’s broad-ranging and stimulating collection from the New Rconomics Foundation.

It’s subtitled ‘a new economics of work and time’, and brings together ideas about how we should measure well-being more adequately than via conventional GDP growth;   reconcile economic policy and practice with the imperatives of environmental change;  and arrive at fairer and more satisfying balance of  paid work, caring and other activities.  Sounds fairly challenging?  It is, but it’s a thoroughly grounded and realistically argued set of essays.

The book’s key agenda item is the reduction of working time – hence the link to the PP, since my position is that we will only achieve a better use of women’s competences when more men work part-time.  It follows on nef‘s earlier essay arguing for a 21-hour working week,  but as Anna says in her introduction this can be flexibly applied across the life course, reducing hours at each end of the age scale:

” Young people entering the labour market for the first time could be offered a four-day week (or its equivalent).  That way, each successive cohort adds to the numbers working a shorter working week, but no one has to cut their hours….At the other end…incremental reduction of working time could be introduced for older workers.  for example, those aged 55 and over could reduce their working week by one hour each year.  Someone on 40 hours a week would thus be working 30 hours a week by 65 and – if they continue in paid employment – 20 hours by 75.”    Or, presumably, they could accelerate the reduction as they got further into their 70s.

The point about such gradualism is that it can happen without people experiencing a sharp cut in their living standards, conventionally measured.    Some of the essays, for example by Robert Skidelsky, challenge these measures and offer a critique of consumerism as the high road to wellbeing.  However nef is well aware that any strategy must confront the fact that many people do not have any margin in their budgets.

I learnt a great deal from the international examples, especially how the Dutch have gone about reducing their hours of work.   Dutch workers have the right to reduce their work hours, while part-timers who want more hours can increase their hours, and they can only be refused if the employer demonstrates a business case.  Part-time workers must be treated equally with respect to benefits (pro-rated, of course) and to promotion.

This has been part of a remarkable transformation in the labour market position of women in the Netherlands:  only a couple of decades ago they had a very low rate of economic activity, but this has now been transformed – nicely in tandem with the growth in their qualifications. Many of these part-timers work quite long hours, ie they are at the upper end of the part-time category.  Their career aspirations do not suffer.  What a contrast this all makes with our position in the UK.




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