It’s familiar enough to be a cliché: the loyal worker who finally retires and then is flummoxed by the prospect of filling unoccupied days. For people whose sense of purpose is wrapped up in their professional identities, life without work is only a pale version of life.
Andrew Yang, currently a US Democratic presidential candidate and also the founder of job-creation nonprofit Venture for America, expresses some of the common fears about worklessness when he says: “It’s clear from the data, and common sense, and human experience, that many, many people struggle without work. We’re idle men; we volunteer less, even though we have more time. And over time, we tend to play a lot of video games, and drink more. Society generally fares very poorly without work.”
Yet it isn’t universally accepted that paid employment is key to an active life. The Japanese concept of ikigai expresses happiness in life, or the reason to get up in the morning. Among Japanese women and men surveyed in 2010, fewer than one-third equated work with their ikigai. Hobbies, relationships and unpaid work – all of these can add up to a richly meaningful life, one where “retirement” might be a foreign concept, as in Okinawa, whose residents are famously long-lived.
On the other hand, for many people in precarious employment, on low wages or with limited retirement savings, worrying about purpose outside work may be an unaffordable luxury. Many people simply can’t afford to retire early or shorten their work weeks. For those who are forced to work less without corresponding public assistance, “leisure time” is likely to be an illusion as they frantically search for ways to supplement their main income.
But the automation of work, awareness of the environmental impact of work and the growing movement for shorter work weeks mean that many of us are likely to be working less in the future. Given work helps provide meaning and structure to a week, the free time of the future could be bewildering and unhealthy. It could be funnelled into antisocial activities, including crime and drug abuse. Or it could become prosocial, being channelled into creativity, sociability and community/political participation. And there may be ways to nudge people towards the latter.
The automation of work and the growing movement for shorter workweeks mean that many of us are likely to be working less in the future (Credit: Getty Images)
Leisure time isn’t always leisurely
It may be that with less work to go around, boredom will increase, at least initially. But this will have its upsides. Challenging as it can be, allowing yourself to be bored occasionally has benefits for creativity and wellbeing. More recreational time baked into a week might keep us from feeling like we need to frantically fill every precious moment of “free” time.
At the moment women, especially, tend to be chronically overworked, but much of that “work” isn’t valued the way paid employment is. Looking after the kids, tending to ageing parents, and handling domestic, social and community responsibilities all take up many hours. Reducing the burden of paid work might free up time or energy for the unpaid care that’s already taking place.
But this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for the exploitation of “free” time. For instance, companies and governments shouldn’t underinvest in certain services because they rely on people to work for free. Encouraging a life with less work, but more purpose, can’t be just about squeezing free labour out of people who don’t find it meaningful.
The scattered shorter-week trials that have been conducted suggest that workers with longer weekends – but whose pay stayed the same – used their extra time for a mix of activities. For a New Zealand financial services firm that last year gave employees the option of a four-day working week, this included more employee time spent golfing, watching Netflix, studying and spending time with family. For a UK PR firm that also instituted a four-day week, one young employee started spending her extra time volunteering with elderly people.
Challenging as it can be, allowing yourself to be bored occasionally has benefits for creativity and wellbeing (Credit: Getty Images)
The finances of longer weekends
How do we get closer to this utopian-sounding vision? Well, it will be essential to think carefully about finances.
Alexandra Hartnall, a marketing and communications consultant in London, found that going freelance left her comfortably off. So she decided to work no more than four days a week for pay. She now spends an extra half-day pursuing her interest in environmental issues by doing pro bono communications work for the Galapagos Conservation Trust. Part of this came down to her personality; as someone who can’t even sit through a film, she likes to remain active.
But Hartnall also acknowledges: “I’m very privileged…I just feel like I wouldn’t want to waste that.” Working for the Galapagos Conservation Trust allows her to restore a part of her self-image that she admits has been affected by working in the property sector. Financial security is the linchpin that makes her volunteering possible.
Philipp Reick, a labour historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, warns that the four-day work week might be an aspect of flexible working that benefits well-off professional employees like Hartnall at the expense of low-earners who are seeking more work.
It might be possible to ward this off, Reick suggests, “if we as societies agreed that, say, 28 hours rather than 40 hours constituted a standard work week and should therefore suffice to receive a decent income. But given how widespread part-time labour, mini jobs or zero-hour contracts still are, I doubt that such a consensus will be reached any time soon.”
So it’s crucial to pay attention to inequality. Discussion of shorter work weeks needs to include ways to ensure a reasonable standard of living for everyone, such as through a universal basic income, a higher minimum wage or no pay cuts when moving to fewer work hours.
But it also needs to envision other ways of finding purpose. Elite American men work for the sake of it, for instance, because workism has become a kind of gospel.
Much of the discussion around shorter work weeks focuses on individual leisure benefits, rather than mobilising for social change (Credit: Getty Image)
Time for the greater good?
One challenge is that simply freeing up time away from work won’t automatically result in more community engagement.
Melanie Oppenheimer, visiting chair in Australian studies at the University of Tokyo, says that in Australia “it’s actually people in the 35 to 44 age group, people with dependent children” – in other words, some of the busiest people – who volunteer the most.
This is partly because “volunteering” is much broader than many people assume. Refereeing a kids’ football game, pitching in at a school fete, helping new migrants settle in, contributing to a citizen science project, planning a religious festival and participating in a professional organisation all count toward voluntary activity, even if it’s informal.
In Oppenheimer’s view, time isn’t the main obstacle to this kind of activity. It’s more important to support potential volunteers and connect them with opportunities that are meaningful for them. “It’s not just about insisting that people carve out more time, it’s about making sure that they have the confidence rather than the time that’s key,” Oppenheimer says.
Yang, the US entrepreneur and presidential candidate, believes in nudging people towards productive use of this free time by embracing time banking, a cashless system where people trade activities or build up credits by logging volunteer time. For instance, you might exchange maths tutoring for tickets to a local event. Yang’s vision of activities that build up community connections and make good use of non-employed time includes: “Caregiving, nurturing, volunteering. Arts and creativity. Environmental sustainability. Many, many things that the market either undervalues, or values at zero.”
This might sound Pollyanna-ish, and there’s not yet enough evidence from long-term studies of how people would actually continue to occupy their free time, after the initial excitement of cutting down from the five-day-a-week standard.
Yet people have long been urging shorter working weeks on the grounds they would provide more leisure, health, productivity, family time and political participation. In 1954, a German politician expressed excitement over the transition from a six-day work week to a five-day one: “Once we have the free Saturday…we will have time to exercise; we will visit the cinema, theatre or circus; we will breed rabbits, take our motorbikes and scooters to the countryside, and tend to our allotment gardens.”
Reick comments: “One striking difference is that the idea of a four-day work week enjoys considerable support among employers today. Throughout the history of shorter hour struggles, trade unions had to fight hard to achieve it.” Reick suspects that this isn’t because employers are necessary more altruistic than they were a century ago, but because they’re alert to the possible productivity gains.
As for labour movements advocating for a shorter work week, he worries that they’re too narrowly focused on individual leisure benefits, rather than mobilising for social change.
Redefining identities and values
In the long run, could working less transform how we define ourselves and even interact with others?
“I feel like your identity is linked to work,” communications consultant Hartnall says. And she wouldn’t want to spend so little time in paid work that she felt it was no longer part of that identity. But she’s also open to thinking of herself in different ways: as a parent, perhaps, a keen gardener or a language learner.
In the future, then, that often-dreaded question “What do you do?” could elicit a variety of answers, beyond just the current job.
At a larger level as well, the transformation of work is a good opportunity to be more imaginative. The world needs broader metrics of success and wellbeing beyond what work produces and what work allows people to consume, argues Sarath Davala, a sociologist in Hyderabad, India and the vice-chair of the Better Income Earth Network. For instance, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness and New Zealand’s wellbeing budget offer some possible alternatives to GDP.
Davala’s work trialling basic income in an Indian tribal village suggests a “solidarity effect” of relieving some of the pressure to work nonstop. For instance, neighbours began to lend money to each other rather than relying on loan sharks charging sky-high interest. They also began pooling resources for special occasions like weddings.
“This is culturally put in your head and my head: that you derive your meaning of your life only through your work,” says Davala. He believes that even the way society organises time could change with a movement to less work, for instance through a less strict and artificial distinction between work and leisure, or between paid work and community work.
“The future is going to be predictably uncertain,” Davala points out. It’s a good time to think about whether that future involves more time spent in offices or more time, say, breeding rabbits.