Sustainable Living 5: How Much Should We Work?

The first four installments of this series focused on our individual consumption choices (food, clothing, transportation and housing). Now, we turn to the broader issues of work, production, and the supply chain. These are deeply interconnected areas: what we purchase shapes what gets produced, and the ways we work, manufacture and distribute goods and services influences our purchasing decisions. Let’s start by looking at how much we work today, compared to what levels of work are compatible with a healthy, happy and sustainable lifestyle.

Work and Leisure. We tend to accept without question that people need to work (at least) 40 hours a week, but why? This standard was established in the 1940s. The world looks very different now. With all the time-saving technology we’ve developed, there’s good reason to question the need for working 40 hours each week. Burnout from overwork is real, so freeing people to work less is an important element of an emotionally sustainable lifestyle. We’ll try to identify a healthy amount of work, appropriate for our time, that sustains us individual workers and the overall society.

History of work. Although some anthropologists believe early hunter-gatherer societies worked only 15 hours a week, this greatly increased as human society organized around agriculture, the city, and factories. By the time of the industrial revolution in the 1800s, people often worked 10-12 hours, 6 days a week. The labor movement ultimately achieved the 40-hour workweek standard in the 1940s.

Work today. Although we still think of the 40-hour week as standard, most people today work more. In the U.S., 50% say they work more than 40 hours, with nearly 40% saying they work at least 50 hours. And yet, since the 1940s, worker productivity has increased by 161.8%. This means today we only need 25 hours of work to produce what took the 1940s worker 40 hours. Much of this extra work we do doesn’t result in extra pay for the average worker, it goes to profits and executive compensation.

Less work is good for humans and the environment. These numbers support decreasing the working day to 6 hours (which made nurses 20% happier in this study) or the workweek to 4 days, or both. A shorter workweek means more time to spend with friends and family, to rest and to enjoy whatever pleasures in life we find most meaningful. It also means a reduced carbon footprint to the extent we produce less, commute less and consume less of the carbon-intensive goods and services that support our time-stressed population. A 4-day workweek could reduce our carbon footprint by 30%.

Of course, that’s only true if we don’t use our new leisure time to do things like travel, which would actually increase our carbon footprint overall. But if we start to live sustainably, consuming even less overall, we would need even fewer work hours to sustain our lifestyle and the economy. A virtuous cycle could result, where we gain more and more time for rest, play and love. At the same time, the meaning of work would shift dramatically, from work for work’s sake, to work that creates the conditions for healthy, happy and sustainable human existence. If that isn’t the point of work, what is?

About the author:

Recovering lawyer, training to be a meditation teacher. Anxiety used to define me. Now I am devoted to bringing peace to the people and communities that continue to suffer from it.


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