The New Economics Foundation recently revived its idea of restricting working hours to 21 hours per week as a means of creating full employment and achieving the work-life balance that is so cherished by wealthy, middle-aged academics. This idea - which can be most charitably described as ‘eye-catching’- revolves around ‘redistributing time’ to deal with ‘time poverty’. The twist is that, unlike with income redistribution, it is the indolent poor who will be the ones handing over their spare time to the over-worked rich in this zero-sum, leisure-heavy Shangri-La.
I'm as tempted as the next man by the promise of half the work for twice the leisure, and so I couldn't resist popping down to the LSE to hear the plan in full. The flaws of slashing working hours in half are so numerous that it would be an insult to the reader's intelligence to point them out, but in case any pre-schoolers with advanced reading abilities and an internet connection have found this site, I will list a few: a halving of hours means a halving of income - meaning less than £7,000 per annum for those on minimum wage; even those on median incomes would fall below the current poverty threshold; a 50% cut in labour when unemployment is less than 10% will starve the market of workers and destroy businesses; it will require two dentists, doctors, train drivers, farmers, taxidermists, etc. to be trained for every one job; most occupations are not suited to job-sharing; it will cut GDP by approximately half; it will make Britain unable to compete with other economies; and so on.
If one can overlook such discrepancies, the 21-hour week will at least allow people more leisure time. This is a clear benefit, unless you are one of the countless millions who see work as a sanctuary from the drudgery of family life. It might also guarantee full employment (if the unemployed can be trained and forced to do the requisite jobs), and yet the noble left-wing chant of ‘jobs-for-all’ barely featured in this debate. The discussion had barely begun before the NEF's pet theme of reducing consumerism reared its misanthropic head.
Every panellist - three professors of economics, sociology and 'sustainable development', no less - agreed that our consumerism is now ‘pathological’. Even Lord Skidelsky, who has just written a book about the perils of consumerism, confessed to having bought an iPad. In this foul year of 2012, the iPad seems to have eclipsed the DVD, the widescreen television and the Playstation as the frivolous luxury of London's lecture-going metropolitans; an object to be scorned and lusted after in equal measure. Skidlelsky's admission to having purchased Steve Jobs' final offering whilst penning an anti-materialist tract was greeted with the nervous laughter of two lapsed Alcoholics Anonymous members bumping into each other in Wetherspoons.
It is an abiding theme of the No Economics Foundation to portray we Britons as being on a hedonic treadmill, working harder and harder to buy knick-knacks and ‘stuff’. ‘Stuff’. The word was contemptuously spat out by every panellist to emphasise the emptiness of our pathological, promiscuous, disposable consumerism. Judging by the appreciative murmurs of the audience, this seems to have struck a chord, but why? Twenty-somethings dominated the crowd. Are these not people with onerous London rents and university debts in the tens of thousands? Do they really think that their prodigious outgoings are mere ‘stuff’? Is it not possible that they rise at 7am to pay their rent, taxes and gas bills before spending what they have left on food and drink?
It is not. They strive only for trinkets and status symbols, but that will all end when our working hours are halved and the arms race of consumerism is brought to an end by those who know better.
Apropos nothing, the discussion soon moves on to advertising. An audience member who describes herself as an Oxfam worker by day and a public health activist by night says she'd like to tax it. Skidelsky goes further and says he wants to ban it (fans of the slippery-slope will be pleased to hear that he cited tobacco as a precedent to clamp down on all advertising). Advertising is the root of all consumerism, says the Oxfam woman, but here she meets resistance from the American sociologist who says that the real root cause of conspicuous consumption is inequality. All the bases are covered tonight.
The American sociologist - Juliet Schor - tells us as fact, and almost as an aside, that Adam Smith's invisible hand is a ‘fallacy’ and then tries to persuade us that we are working harder than we used to even though her own graphs shows us that we are not. The idea that we are ‘chasing GDP’ is repeatedly cited as a reason to sit down and enjoy life in reduced circumstance. Perhaps it is a tribute to the courtesy of the audience that no one mentions that the decline in working hours is hardly indicative of a ‘chase’ and that GDP grows as a result of new technology and greater efficiency - changes from which we are fortunate to benefit from, but cannot take credit for.
Skidlesky drew cheers when he compared ‘pathological’ consumerism with avarice, but did not pursue the biblical theme by equating the NEF's proposed three-day week with sloth. ‘I think we should have a progressive tax system,’ he says. Clement Attlee should take note. A bit of banker-bashing yielded the one and only round of applause of the night after an elderly gentleman asked how a reduced economy is supposed to pay for geriatric services. Skidelsky side-stepped the question by diverting the discussion towards the evergreen issue of bankers' bonuses, as if these excused the Ponzi scheme of National Insurance. Never mind. It was all good sport and it took our minds off the fact that several hundred reasonably intelligent people were sitting in a room discussing the prospect of making people happier by halving their incomes.