A recent study published last week in the British peer-reviewed journal Addiction found that people who work 50 hours or more every week were three times more likely to develop alcohol addiction than people who work less. Earlier in April, a study by a team from University College London found that people who work over 11 hours a day have a markedly higher risk of heart attack than people who work more regular 9am to 5pm hours. The fact that people in Western society choose to adopt such working lifestyles is alarming in itself. While long working hours and night-shifts are becoming more heavily criticized by scientific research for being unhealthy - there is also evidence to show that even the regular 8 hour day of Western society may be a burden to family life, intellectual development and creativity. The current trajectory of high consumption lifestyles in Western societies is also unsustainable in the face of increasing limitations on natural resources.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental questions for society to ask is whether materialism is making us happy? Are people happy to venture out most days of the year and spend all day in a workplace that helps produce or manage things that the worker may be disengaged from? Is it morally right to make people pay rents for shelter, work long hours to pay for fuel, food, water, and clothing? These are questions which have been asked by many critics of capitalism over the years, and particularly by Karl Marx. The age of petroleum, which accelerated particularly at the advent of the 19th century - has thrust countless molecules of chemical pollutants into the worlds' biosphere. Pesticide, plastics, lead, mercury and radioactive residues affect immune systems in all living systems through the food chain. The trajectory and development of industrial capitalism has been destructive for the natural environment, whilst offering very little happiness for the majority of people on the planet. There may well be plenty more material goods being produced and transported around the globe at any time in history - but are most people happier as a result? Karl Marx observed that it took capitalism centuries to increase the working day to a length of 12 hours or more. This was achieved by several political processes, which included an increasing influence of a more work-obsessed form of Protestantism. In the 19th century, some people were working up to 15 hours a day for 6 days a week. On the 1st of May 1886 over 300,000 American workers went on strike for an eight hour day. The response to this labour uprising was brutal and repressive and led to the Haymarket arrests and the resulting international celebration of May Day. There have been efforts to reduce working hours even further. In 1930, the W.K. Kellogg Company announced the creation of 300 new jobs as a result of its new 6-hour work day contract. This did come at a cost of reduced wages for existing workers at the plant, but the majority of workers preferred these fewer working hours because it enabled more time for family and community. Unfortunately, a changing management team started to lose their enthusiasm for the 6 hour workday. It took this new management almost 40 years to increase the workday from 6 hours back to 8 or more hours.
In modern day China, we have many examples of young men and women spending 12 hours a day (including weekends) producing products for Western markets. It is increasingly clear that these working patterns have negative effects on both the individual and society. Arthur Dahlberg, who was a consultant to the Roosevelt and Hoover administrations in the US - wrote that society did not need a working day that exceeded four hours. He said that a big reduction in working hours was neccessary in order to prevent society from becoming "disastrously materialistic". In 1991, the Harvard economist Juliet Schor came to the conclusion that a 4-hour work day could be achieved without reducing the standard of living for the working population. The 4-hour work day was also promoted as an ideal by the British philosopher Betrand Russel and the American polymath and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Reducing daily work hours may also have limited effects on consumers . According to a study by the economist J.W. Smith - over 50% of industrial capacity is not necessary for the satiation of consumer needs. Not only do shorter working hours allow people to improve their connections with people in their community - they can also have spare time to engage in creative or intellectual activities. More importantly, we have a growing population of unemployed people as a result of a global financial crisis. Lowering the workday to 4 hours could virtually eliminate the unemployment problem in a matter of a few years. In 1945, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a letter to the poet TS Eliot which included ideas about lowering unemployment via reductions in working hours. He regarded this approach as potentially the "ultimate solution" to the problem of unemployment. He also stated that fewer working hours would result in more time for men and women to spend their money and thus stimulate the economy. The campaigns for fewer working hours have been attacked by orthodox economists over the years. They accuse campaigners of falling for the "lump of labour fallacy" which assumes that there is a fixed amount of work to be done in society. Orthodox economists argue that the amount of work is not fixed and that any reductions in working hours will simply have negative repurcussions for the profitability of businesses. This orthodox view should be challenged a lot more, particularly by a new emphasis on quality over quantity - and personal development, above that of profiteering. A reduction in hours could potentially produce more efficient work practices which could help restrict price inflation.
One of the enduring myths of capitalist ideology is the idea that it has reduced the amount of hard-work, labour and human suffering in the world. Harvard University researcher Juliet Schor wrote in an interesting book in the early 90's titled "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure". She details how working hours in America have increased significantly since the 70's (for both men and women) - with people willing to choose these longer working hours in order to maintain their incomes and consumption-based lifestyles. This is quite a contrast to a history where workers would rather spend more free-time at the cost of lower wages. More significantly, she explores the history of working hours several centuries prior to the advent of capitalism. For example, she describes how the pre-capitalist lifestyle consisted of a more leisurely pace of work and frequent holidays. With the increase in the incomes of wage-labourers, came a reduction in their spare time. She cites the work of Oxford Professor James E. Thorold Rogers; who (through his detailed research) found that the medieval workday did not exceed eight hours. Thus, the people worked considerably fewer hours than modern day Chinese labourers. The medieval context also varied from nation to nation. For example, the ancien règime of France guaranteed ninety rest days and thirty-eight holidays. The Spanish had eras where holidays totaled five months per year. Back in England, there are records from the 13th century which show that peasant families did not work on their land for more than 150 days per year. This left more time for leisure once other basic needs (such as fuel and water) had been gathered for the day. Other records show farmer-miners only worked for a maximum of 180 days a year, with the rest of the time devoted towards religious, communal and familial activities.
Thus it can be seen from history that our current modern working habits are by no means neccessary. With efficient systems of food-production, water-infrastructure and low-energy fuel-infrastructure - humanity can help greatly restrict the amount of daily toil needed for survival. In his 1943 paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow produced a conceptual pyramid called the hierarchy of needs. The lower end of the pyramid consists of basic survival needs (food, water, sleep) and safety/security needs such as family and property. Maslow explains how the majority of humanity spends almost all their time trying to fullfill the lower-end needs of the pyramid, and thus repressing their higher desires. These higher aspirations of love, of community, of spirituality and morality, and of creative and intellectual achievement - are quashed by an economic order that gives people very little say over their productive lives. Perhaps a reduction to a 20 hour week could help spur an explosion of human creativity, reductions in conflict and (in the words of Maslow) the possibility of self-actualization?