How a 15-Hour Workweek Could Change Our Lives for the Better

Americans work 200 more hours annually than their British and French peers—but studies show working more doesn’t translate into higher productivity.

In These Times Editors

(Illustration by Terry Laban)
15-hour work • week
noun

1. Exact­ly what it sounds like — less work for the same money

I work near­ly three times that much now. Is this normal?

Sad­ly, yes. The Orga­ni­za­tion of Eco­nom­ic Coop­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment shows that Amer­i­can work­ers put in an aver­age of 1,786 hours annu­al­ly, 200 more hours than their British and French peers. Yet study after study reveals that work­ing more hours doesn’t increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty—just stress, health issues and car­bon emissions.

How much less should I be working?

An often-cit­ed 2016 study found that work­ers per­formed best when they were clock­ing in just three days a week, five hours a day. Advo­cates of a 15-hour work­week, such as Dutch author Rut­ger Breg­man, argue that much of the work we do now is point­less at best and harm­ful at worst, so we should do much less of it. Major trade unions in Ger­many, the Nether­lands, Ire­land and the U.K. have all backed a four-day work­week, and the British Labour Party’s shad­ow chan­cel­lor, John McDon­nell, has promised to reduce the aver­age work­week to 32 hours with­in the next decade, pro­claim­ing, We should work to live, not live to work.” Microsoft Japan exper­i­ment­ed with a short­er work­week and trum­pet­ed that it actu­al­ly boost­ed pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and cut down on time-wasting.

What about in the Unit­ed States?

Thanks per­haps to a nation­al case of worka­holism, until recent­ly it was self-pro­claimed do-good­er CEOs talk­ing about why we should work less (to increase their prof­its, nat­u­ral­ly). But there are signs the Amer­i­can labor move­ment could once again take up the fight for few­er hours. Notably, Bernie Sanders said he would con­sid­er a 32-hour work­week (for the same pay) at the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers 2019 fall forum in Iowa.

Sounds great to me. Is there a catch?

Some pro­gres­sive econ­o­mists wor­ry that enforc­ing a short­er work­week could lead to an eco­nom­ic con­trac­tion and pay cuts. One pro­pos­al for a leisure agen­da” from the People’s Pol­i­cy Project rec­om­mends a mix of mea­sures instead, includ­ing more fed­er­al hol­i­days, more guar­an­teed vaca­tion time, and more paid parental and sick leave. How­ev­er we get there, the end goal is clear: We need to get a life.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of reduc­ing hours and rais­ing pay in action, see, How Work­ing Less Can Help Pre­vent Cli­mate Cat­a­stro­phe and Pro­mote Wom­en’s Equal­i­ty,” Cal­i­for­nia Work­ers Win Equal Over­time: This Bill Cor­rects 78 Years of Dis­crim­i­na­tion’” and Long Hours, No Rest: Over­worked Amer­i­cans Still Dream of Vaca­tion.”

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue