Adverts annoy me. Particularly uninvited adverts in public spaces- especially in green, residential spaces. I often fantisise about vandalising them, a la Banksy. In recent months I was even irritated by an advert for charity. Now, I don’t mean that I got people to sign up to sponsor me for every ad I endured, I mean there was an advert for charitable purposes which frustrated me every time I passed by. If you also live in England, you may remember it- the one that says ‘Every child has the right to play’. My reaction is screw the kids, it’s adults who need our right to play recognised.
Seriously though, humans are playing animals. We need the relaxation, and the exercise of our imaginations that it brings. Most psychologists would confirm that playing is necessary for our emotional well being, and the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott even made it central to his pioneering conception of human nature. But this has all been a digression from (or ‘pre-gression’ to?) thinking about work. Two different news stories this month continued the heightening interest in the idea that we work too many hours in the western world. The prevalent reaction to such suggestions tends to be a negative characterisation of, if not the authors themselves as hippie types, then as the people who are enthused by such things as selfishly desiring less work and more time for themselves. And you’d be forgiven for at least agreeing that it’s mainly about play (though I’d hope you’d agree with me that that could be a good thing) but you’d be wrong. Nor is it mainly about working more slowly as the similar ‘Slow movement‘ in disciplines such as pedagogy might suggest. Strange as it may sound, cutting down hours is primarily about working more.
No doubt you’re aware we tend to work around 40 hours a week, with people in lower paid jobs of course working longer. In the EU there is a legal limit of 48 hours (which in the UK can be voluntarily wavered), while France has introduced its own a stricter limit of 35 hours- though many workers there spread this over four days rather than five. We also tend to retire at around the age of 65. In the first of two news stories, James W. Vaupel, researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, argues that with ageing populations we should work for longer in life because “There is strong evidence that elderly people who work part-time are healthier than those who don’t work at all and just sit at home.” By working for the same amount across our lives as we tend to do now, to spread that work over a longer period will allow us to be healthier in general, not just towards the end of our lives. He summarised this as his hope that as the 20th century saw a great redistribution of wealth (at last within the western world), the 21st century would see a great redistribution in terms of working hours. So here working less hours is about working more in the sense of working for a longer proportion of one’s lifetime.
Secondly, the BBC covered projects on reducing the amount of paid work we do, suggesting this as a means for doing a variety of more work. This recalled a report advocating this they covered three years ago. Whether it’s four days/32 hours of paid skilled work per week as was the focus of the more recent article, or three days/24 hours as in the older -or something in between- this should be adequate to live on in the western world of today. The time freed-up could be partly filled with charity work. In my view we should assist children and assist the elderly each at least once a week, whether or not we are related to them (at least if that is not already the purpose of our paid work).
We could instead alternate between volunteering with children and with the elderly on a weekly basis, but my reason for suggesting this is that I think that if we are not in regular contact with the vulnerable (including the sick, disabled, homeless and imprisoned) at both ends of the age spectrum we very quickly lose touch of an important part -however hidden- of what it is to be a human being. We lose touch with our own inherent vulnerability, and our actions -tending to reflect this- lose their humanity too.
We should all be involved with caring for each other in the community, this should not be seen as a role to be passed over to specialists only. Although such jobs should be paid, and paid by how important they are, not for how the market values the skills they require, they will be good for us if they are voluntary- perhaps even more so. This would still leave a day of rest to spend more time with your loved ones or to exercise more, and maybe another day for other voluntary services to the community. This only requires that we resist anxieties over comparative wealth, being brave enough to embrace life on a lower income.
This is a strongly communitarian idea, what is more popularly known in British politics (albeit often derisively) as ‘the Big Society’. It could also form part of a program of national service, which I would like to see reintroduced (without its military component). But I am suggesting that we build up a culture where it is normal for this care work to be voluntarily undertaken by everyone who is capable of doing it, and hence we must be weary that we don’t force people to do it as teenagers in a way that may put them of it for life (providing many other options for service should avoid this).
Liberals will prefer to focus on how good a more varied and slower paced lifestyle may be for us as individuals, but more than that, the key issue is that a rapidly increasing amount of necessary services for the community (related to climate change as well as demographic change) are not being performed, and we simply cannot rely upon either the market or the public sector to incentivise these with paid work. As Anna Coote, co-author of the 2010 report puts it “We could even become better employees – less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive. … It is time to break the power of the old industrial clock, take back our lives and work for a sustainable future.” Moreover, as a philosopher I believe it is crucial that we also make more time for thinking, civic deliberation, writing- and even blogging.