How Working Less Can Give Us More

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red graffiti on a white wall with Anarchy symbol 'it's tough to make a living when all we do is work'

In ‘The Story of Change’, Annie Leonard pointed out that our ‘consumer muscle’ has grown strong, but as a consequence of overworking it, our ‘citizen muscle’ has gone flabby. We’re less active, engaged citizens.

But how can we be engaged citizens if so much of our time is taken up with paid work? Is there another way to structure our lives?

US author and documentary film maker John de Graaf recently gave two public talks in Adelaide, South Australia entitled ‘Shorter Work Time: The Missing Link Between Wellbeing and Sustainability’.

In Australia on a speaking tour for his new book ‘What’s The Economy For, Anyway?’de Graaf drew the links between quality of life, fairness and equity and sustainability by speaking of how society’s goals should be to achieve ‘the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the longest run’.

The ‘greatest good’ reflects all the quality of life issues, ‘the greatest number’ is about justice and fairness, and ‘the longest run’ is about sustainability – if we continue with an economic paradigm that results in overconsumption and climate change, then we could undermine our other intentions.

de Graaf used examples from the US, Europe and Asia to show how nations like Bhutan have enshrined ‘Gross National Happiness’ in their constitution rather than GDP as the primary indicator of success (ie. choosing to measure ‘better’ rather than ‘bigger’); how as a result of the financial crisis, Californian workers who were required to take a small cut in pay in exchange for an extra day off a week chose to keep their four day work week for less pay; and how many of our current societal concerns – overwork, underemployment, having time for family, friends, interests, exercise and sleep – could all be addressed by shortening paid work time.
(58 minutes – talk 35 mins, Q&A 23 mins – this will shortly be available on YouTube, so please check back soon)

He acknowledged that this was not the only approach needed, and that for many people – especially those working long hours or more than one job to make ends meet – other measures such as an increase in the minimum wage would be needed.

Professor Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, also expresses these sentiments in her book ‘Time Bomb’ – right now, sustainable living requires constant consciousness, and because conscious effort requires more time and attention, habit takes precedence over considered approach:

Time is a resource that makes change possible and without it, new ways of living are crowded out – decisions to reassess behaviour and do things differently require an investment of time and thought.

Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of ‘Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth’, draws the links between time, healthy communities and wellbeing, and like de Graaf, argues it would be wise to convert increased productivity into more time rather than more consumption:

As more and more labor time went into the market, time for community disappeared.  Social ties frayed and neighborhoods hollowed out. But social relationships are a potent form of economic wealth, which people can turn to during financial instability or adverse climate events. People who have strong social connections, or what’s called social capital, fare much better when times get rough. Plenitude involves re-building local economic interdependence by trading services, sharing assets, and relying on each other in good, as well as hard times.

simple graph with 'respect' along x axis and 'transactions' along y axis - at top of 'x' axis 'citizens', at end of y axis 'consumers'

Image credit

Author Charles Eisenstein speaks of the relationship between time, money, community and the ‘gift’ economy (which is the oldest kind of economy, having persisted for millennia and which is still with all of us today):

…community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors—or indeed on any specific person—for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it…The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.

If we truly want to flex our citizen muscle – to have an active, engaged citizenry, and to evolve sustainable futures – then one of the most important keys is to find ways to help people take back their time.

Thanks to Libby Dowling and Jonathan Pheasant of the University of Adelaide’s Ecoversity Program, Jen Manning and Barbara Pocock of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life and Zero Waste SA for supporting John’s visit to Adelaide.

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  1. animaleale says:

    The New Economics Foundation (NEF) in the UK published a report entitled ’21 Hours’. It can be downloaded from their website at

    • Thank you so much for this! Yes the nef report is a good one, and I should have referenced it in this article – exactly the sort of thing de Graaf and Schor and many others are calling for. Thanks for making this comment!


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