Economists talking about unemployment often refer gloomily to a drop in full time work, particularly for men. Apparently it’s ok for women to be in part time work, but the assumption is that men want or need to be in full time work. Now that we find ourselves in a climate where jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate, maybe it’s time to re-examine that assumption. Many people are unemployed – and many more will find themselves unemployed over the coming months. So here’s a thought: let’s all go part time.
Ask yourself this – would you prefer to be unemployed, or to work 4 days per week? Or maybe even 3? Sure, there’s a pay cut involved. But the cut from 5 days’ pay to 3 would still leave a higher wage than the unemployment benefit. (For a ‘partnered’ person, this is a maximum of $409 a fortnight. Based on the minimum wage of $14.31/hr, that’s just over 14 hours of work per week.) That’s just the financial difference. Unemployment carries with it many other problems besides money. The risks of depression, alcoholism, family breakdown and physical illness all rise rapidly when a person becomes unemployed.
Andrew has been working 4 days a week ever since his oldest child was born. One day a week has been “Daddy’s day” for the last 6 years, and he has a magnificent relationship with his kids. Yet he is classified as one of the men who is “not in full time employment”, and used as an example of how the employment rate is a problem. Why is being part time inherently bad? Many people envy Andrew’s 4 day weeks, and his 3 day weekends. It’s a great arrangement. If he did not have kids to spend time with, think of all the things he could do with that free time. Andrew would be perfectly happy to remain part time, even after his kids were grown, if he could persuade his employer to agree to it.
And there’s the rub. Employers don’t want part timers. Try checking the job ads – there are very few jobs advertised as part time. Especially professional jobs. As a senior executive in a large corporation commented “In our organisation, part time work is something which is allowed to accommodate valued staff – not when taking staff on.” But even where companies do choose to “accommodate valued staff”, there has to be a highly compelling case for why the staff member wants to be part time. Caring for children, or sick family members counts, although it still seems to be more of a struggle for men to get this kind of leave than women. There is an unspoken but pervasive assumption that it is the woman’s role. But wanting more leisure time, choosing to study something unrelated to work, or simply looking for work life balance? That’s disloyalty, that is.
But why should this be? Why is it career suicide to do so much as express interest in not devoting your life – body, soul and major organs – to your job? Surely no-one would argue that it is healthy, or even good for your productivity, to be wholly obsessed with work, to the exclusion of everything else?
The biggest obstacle may be that many professionals work far more than a standard 40 hour week, with lots of unpaid overtime. If you have people explicitly paid for a designated number of hours per week, they may be less likely to put in huge amounts of unpaid overtime. Thus businesses might have to start paying people for the work they actually do. This is an aspect of “user pays” that business is understandably reluctant to adopt.
True, having part time employees may require creative solutions in some cases – there are continuity issues in some jobs. But there is nothing fundamental about a 5 day working week. Working patterns have simply evolved to fit it. With a bit of creativity we can develop new working patterns to fit a new length of working week. There are few jobs where it is utterly crucial for the same person to be physically present 5 days out of every 7.
This is a manageable way for all of us to downshift – to switch emphasis from consumption to experience. Instead of working most of our waking hours in order to buy stuff, we can work less and experience more. Experience time with our loved ones. Play sport. Ride a bike. Create an idyllic, low water garden. Read more books. Volunteer for a local charity or community organisation. Socialise, learn, involve ourselves in the local community. We can grow immeasurably rich this way. How many of us actually meet every one of our emotional, social and intellectual needs at work? Think of the potential impact on rates of depression, obesity, and isolation, if we all had time to be more engaged with our local communities.
True, a decrease in consumption will not help us to rebuild our economy the way it was – but do we want that economy back? That economy flew high and then dropped us deep into trouble in an instant. It requires ever increasing consumption, which we can’t physically sustain, simply because the earth is finite. Sooner or later we will run out of resources, or destabilise our climate to a catastrophic extent, and the smart money is on ‘sooner’. So continuing to strive for increasing consumption is madness. We need a new solution. Many new solutions. What we don’t need is to continue to work ourselves, and our planet, into an early grave.