There's nothing really natural about the 40-hour work week -- let alone the 50-plus hours many Americans spend on the job.
"Employment law and welfare law encourages us, particularly in the U.S. and U.K., to work more than 40 hours a week," said Mike Harris, senior associate at the New Economics Foundation, an independent think tank in London. "That's bad for the economy, bad for the environment, and that's also bad for the person."
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted a future in which the average person would be richer and work less -- like, say, 15 hours a week. He saw productivity gains allowing workers to achieve more in fewer hours, so why shouldn't the end result be more free time?
Things didn't pan out that way. After a long decline in working hours paralleling improvements in efficiency from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, the U.S. "stopped taking productivity growth in terms of fewer hours of work," said Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College. Employers pay health care and other benefits per head rather than per hour in the U.S., so they responded to competition and recession in the 1980s by pushing some people out of the labor market and working the remainder harder. The result: more people unemployed and larger incomes for the over-employed.
If we reverse this trend, we might help tackle many of the problems facing society today, including climate change, Schor explained in her talk at the non-profit Garrison Institute's annual Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium in New York last week. Her research has found that a reduction of 10 percent in working hours could trim carbon footprints by 15 percent due to decreased consumption of goods and energy.
If you have more income, you can buy more stuff. A case in point: the average American doubled purchases of new clothing from 1991 to 2007, according to Schor.
Time constraints can also have detrimental effects, both on the environment and on public health. If you live a mile from work, you might choose to walk rather than drive if not pressed for time. You might also choose to eat at home rather than rushing out for fast food. "Households that have more free time are able to do things that are lower impact," Schor said.
Of course, few Americans can choose how many hours they work, whether more or less. Recent movements such as Occupy Wall Street assert that the disparity of work and money is unfair and unsustainable. The mounting push to adjust what is considered a 'normal' work week, by redistributing work across the population, has essentially the same goal.
Some European countries are already taking this step.
Marije Cornelissen, a member of the European parliament and Dutch Green Party, has never hired an employee to work more than 32 hours per week. She's done so out of her own self-interest, she said. "You get far more productivity per hour in a part-time work week," she said. (Unlike in the U.S., Cornelissen doesn't have to foot the majority of her employees' health care bills.)
More than 10 years ago, Cornelissen's Dutch Greens initiated a successful effort to reduce the standard work week. Today, the typical employee in the Netherlands works fewer than 35 hours per week, often spread from Monday to Thursday.
In the U.S., a trial program begun in Utah in 2008 compressed the 40-hour work week for state employees to four days. Without the need to commute or turn on the lights, elevators and computers on Fridays, employees helped cut the state's energy bills and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10,000 metric tons -- the equivalent of removing about 1,700 gasoline cars from U.S. roads. The workers also appeared to like the lifestyle change: 82 percent wanted to stay on the new schedule. Nevertheless, the program ended in September 2011.
Meanwhile, Germany and France are among nations following the Dutch lead.
"Emissions of greenhouse gases are 50 to 70 percent higher here in the U.S., compared to those countries," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "In terms of damage to the planet, we're much worse."
In addition to longer hours, both the U.S. and U.K. have higher unemployment rates -- above 8 percent, compared with 5 percent in both the Netherlands and Germany. "There seems to be some relationship. Shorter working hours make it easier to create more jobs," said Harris of the New Economics Foundation and lead researcher on a 2010 report that advocates a 21-hour work week.
Germans currently work about 20 percent fewer hours than Americans, which means that an American employer needs about 20 percent more revenue to generate a new job.
"By moving to shorter working hours generally across the working population, you can share out employment much more," said Baker. He added that the obstacle of employer-based health insurance will likely be overcome with President Barack Obama's health care plan.
One of the greatest roadblocks to moving environmental policy now is concern over a struggling U.S. economy. A 2011 Gallop poll found the widest margin in nearly 30 years in how much Americans prioritize economic growth and environmental protection: 54 percent versus 36 percent.
"As environmentalists, we need to embrace a broad agenda," said Schor, "we need to have a climate strategy that is also a strategy that improves the labor market."