It’s time to talk about working time

Kevin Callinan, deputy general secretary, Fórsa

Almost 90 years ago, the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological change would deliver productivity improvements that would eventually lead to a 15-hour working week.

This was revolutionary indeed, at a time when working hours were considerably longer than today and when the ‘weekend’ was not yet a feature of life for the working masses in Ireland, Europe and beyond.

Keynes’s reasoning was straightforward enough. He correctly said that, by producing more with less, we could cater for our needs while doing less work. This would mean more leisure time with no economic loss.

The length of the working week has remained more or less the same over the last few decades.

Even Keynes could scarcely have imagined the productivity gains that have been achieved since he made his prediction, or the accelerated speed of improvement we’ve seen in recent decades.

Yet the length of the working week has remained more or less the same over the last few decades.

If anything, we now have less control over our working time with the advent of the ‘gig economy’ and the arrival of relatively simple new technologies like remote email facilities and mobile phones, from which we cannot easily disconnect during evenings and weekends.

Today – not for the first time in history – working time is emerging as one of the central issues in international debates about the future of work.

Many believe the gains from technological change and new forms of work organisation are not being fairly shared - people are asking why all the benefits seem to be earmarked for a small global elite.

This is partly due to concerns for the mental and physical health of workers and growing concerns about work-life balance in an age where caring responsibilities – for younger and older relatives – are growing exponentially, especially for women.

But it’s also a fundamental issue of equity in societies where many believe the gains from technological change and new forms of work organisation are not being fairly shared.

In a world where new technologies like artificial intelligence are also threatening at least some of our livelihoods, and where modern work practices are making more and more jobs more and more precarious, people are asking why all the benefits seem to be earmarked for a small global elite.

Workers have historically benefited from improvements in technology through reduced working time.

An international conference organised in Dublin by Fórsa will today explore emerging trade union demands for a move towards a four-day week as standard over the coming years.

It follows a call last summer by the Trade Union Congress (the UK equivalent of ICTU), which has put a four-day week at the centre of its response to automation and productivity-driving technological change.

Workers have historically benefited from improvements in technology through reduced working time.

One example is the cut in average working hours. A century ago this was over 60. Now, partly due to more part-time working, it’s reduced to just over 30. This has hugely improved the quality of life for workers and their families.

The weekend that many of us take for granted was also seen as an unaffordable luxury until around the middle of the twentieth century. Several generations on, we have the chance to fight for a fairer share for everyone, including through a four day week.

Trade unions don’t want to impede technological developments in a 21st century Luddite escapade. We know that they have the potential to take a lot of the drudgery and danger out of current workplace tasks while increasing prosperity, including by creating many new jobs.

But we are determined to secure a fairer share of the benefits of economic growth and technological advances for all workers in all sectors of the economy. This would also have the benefit of sharing paid work as technology reduces its availability.

The weekend that many of us take for granted was also seen as an unaffordable luxury until around the middle of the twentieth century.

Many employers will, of course, continue to require non-standard working hours in the 24/7 economy – and this works for many employees too. We don’t want to inhibit flexibility, but we do want to see worker protections and a fair share of the benefits of new technology.

It’s already happening in a number of large European economies including France and Germany, where the IG Metall union recently negotiated a deal that included the option for 500,000 workers in 280 companies to reduce their working time.

Today’s Fórsa conference aims to open up the debate here in Ireland. We already know countries that work fewer hours tend to have higher levels of productivity, as well as greater amounts of wealth per person.

In this context, a reduction in working time is entirely feasible even within current levels of technology. The benefits for society, gender and age equality, the economy and the environment could be significant.

This article was originally published in TheJournal.ie.

See also: Unions call for four-day working week