It’s December and the rather glorious longest days of the year are fast disappearing in the onrushing Christmas hype.
I’m of the generation that remembers long youthful debates in the halcyon late hippy days including the one that predicated that globalistion would see us facing, in our lifetime, a considerable challenge in using up the free time that it would bring us all.
Five-day work weeks would be a thing of the past, we thought.
So did the economist John Maynard Keynes. He predicted – in the 1930s – that by this point in history we would be working 15 hours a week and spending the rest of our time on “the art of life itself”.
He also predicted the end of economic growth in developed countries, which would be environmentally undesirable anyway. We would have to make the most of our human resources, he said.
In the way that art (and not infrequently, Hollywood) initiates concepts, along came Star Trek and we had further evidence. Once all material wants can be supplied easily with technology, consumerism and greed disappear. Or so it was aboard Captain James Kirk’s Starship Enterprise, with its sombre Mr Spok and a cast of galactic civilisations whose anthropology was often science fiction magic.
Without the now-overdeveloped 21st century terrestrial sins of avarice and injustice, the Starship crew and most of the universe were free to get on, wholeheartedly, with whatever job was on hand.
Unfortunately, Keynes was outlived by his gloomy rival, the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek. Keynes intellectually savaged Hayek during his lifetime but it was Hayek who found credibility 50 years later in the 1980s when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher took to quoting from his work Road to Serfdom.
Since then, the world seems to be at a values crossroads. Someone told me this last week with astonishing confidence that, given a clear run, Bernie Sanders would have taken the US presidency for the Democrats. Jeremy Corbyn nearly did the same in the UK. Jacinda Ardern also rode the wave of social justice, campaigning for an end to entrenched inequality.
Wandering round the front paddock in a perfectly still morning with the sun coming up over Surfdale and an hour before needing to be at work, it seemed as if we need a seminal moment, a signature cause to unite on.
A step-change to match the abolition of slavery and the long road to reducing the norm of 100 hour work weeks to 40.
This might be it. Columnist Owen Jones in this week’s Guardian points out that there is a single policy that would improve family lives, encourage men to do more housework, tackle health conditions, increase productivity and make people happier.
In our case, it would cut every car-bound Auckland worker’s weekly fuel bill by 20 percent, make Sunday truly a day of rest and give children back both of their over-worked parents.
Instead of a chancy six weeks of long evenings before Christmas, there would be year-round time for family activities, for making mini-Edens of productivity on our big sections and for enjoying and contributing to our communities instead of, at present, jamming in voluntary contributions as part of an already overlong list.
We’d have time to do, make and be things, instead of consoling ourselves with rubbishing trinkets the planet cannot afford and that seem shocking in the face of global dislocation and humanitarian abuses on unimaginable scales.
It’s as simple as a four-day working week.
The UK’s independent progressive Autonomy Institute think-tank, whose report sparked the new call for the four-day week, says the issue would shift perspectives to better quality – and less – work. It’s easy to imagine that the step-change would also speed up much needed gender balances, including for carers.
Argument against the idea is hard to find but recorded evidence for increased productivity and fewer sick days indicates that if the benefits are passed on to the workers, the financial equation will work for both workers and employers.
In the UK employees are estimated to put in £33.6 billion of unpaid labour hours a year so the taxpayer savings on stress-related public health issues would probably be hard to argue against.
So how about it? The average work week for full-time manufacturing employees was 100 hours when the US government began tracking workers’ hours in 1890. Fifty years later, it was a no-brainer.
The Waiheke Theatre Company’s production of A Christmas Carol is currently running at Artworks, Dickens’ most graphic depiction of the evils of entrenched inequality and poverty reminding us that focus on money is not a path to happiness.
Civilisation demands more than desperate and overworked parents, tenuous employment and cold and unaffordable homes. • Liz Waters