It”s Wednesday, a week after the start of Thanksgiving break, and (thankfully) politeness doesn”t require you to ask everyone you have a conversation with “so how was your break?”
Every year, the responses are similar: “Pretty bad, I”ve got a bunch of work to do for this one class of mine and I”m still working on my personal statement for law school.” “It was great, I saw a lot of my old high school friends at the bar and basically just chilled for a few days before things get real stressful again”
Generally, the lousy breaks aren”t really “breaks” at all just lulls in the school year that allow you to catch up on work. The good breaks tend to be the exact opposite some quality time spent with friends and/or family, good conversation, good food, and reading material of one”s choosing.
The lesson here is hardly a profound one: For most people, work = bad, and leisure = good. It”s a simple, almost universally acknowledged truth and yet most Americans now regard the traditional 40-hour workweek as a luxury. The average American today works longer, harder and for less real income than ever before.
In the same way that the health care industry has convinced most Americans that any single-payer health care system will be a dystopian bureaucratic disaster (“Ever been to Canada? Talk about hell on earth”), Americans have somehow been convinced although I suspect the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” shares a big part of the blame that work is some sort of end-in-itself.
Apparently it”s harder to convince the French that obvious facts are, in fact, not true. Not only does everyone in France have access to health care (even those lazy poor people), but they also have a 35-hour workweek. And no, the country isn”t on the verge of collapse in fact, things over there are going just fine thank you.
By almost all accounts, the 35-hour work week (or, rather, the 1,600-hour work year), which was adopted in 1998 by Lionel Jospin”s government and now affects almost 50 percent of France”s work force, is changing life there dramatically. The legislation has caused affected employees to have between 11 and 16 extra days off per year. Now, more French people have more leisure time, and they”re using it to go on more vacations (2000 saw an 18 percent jump in camper van purchases) and this should please all you “family values” people they”re spending more time socializing with their friends and family. More people are working too, in June France”s state planing commission estimated that the 35-hour workweek was responsible for creating one in six new jobs.
French employers have also seen the benefits of a reduced workweek well-rested, happy workers are much more productive workers who make fewer mistakes and are less likely to mouth-off to customers. On the other hand, French employers (especially in capital-intensive industries) are trying to compensate for higher overhead costs you lose money when you invest in machines that aren”t being worked by someone by cutting breaks and pushing employees to work at an uncomfortable pace. As a result, French labor ministry research indicates that only about 59 percent of those affected by the reduced workweek think it has made their lives better.
So, given it”s not-quite-overwhelming success, should we just give up on the reduced workweek? There”s evidence that the problem isn”t that 35 hours a week is too little, but that it”s too much. An 8/8/01 column in the Ottawa Citizen cited an experiment in Finland where the traditional 8-hour workday is divided into two six-hour shifts. Even though they”re required to pay workers for working eight hours a day, Finnish employers aren”t losing money because the increased service hours, productivity and reduced overhead costs offset the cost of paying workers for two extra hours of work. Similar experiments are being conducted all over Europe.
According to Bruce O”Hara, the Citizen column”s author, “the work-time issue has had so much attention in Europe that my guess is that some time in the next five years, at least one city or region will pilot-test a 28-hour work-week built around two community-wide shifts. I further predict that the model is so practical that it will quickly become the norm across Europe.”
What the European and hypothetical experiments in shorter workweeks indicate (at the very least) is that it may be more than possible to significantly improve people”s social lives at little or no economic cost. It”s time to take a critical look at America”s fabled “Protestant Work Ethic,” do an economic cost- social benefit analysis, and start enjoying life.
Nick Woomer can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.