Work less, play more

Lucy Purdy

The 40-hour work week is an ingrained part of our culture, but it does very little to enrich our lives. Lucy Purdy explores alternative working models that do away with the idea of the nine-to-five

Time is perhaps the most precious commodity of all. While we can buy more possessions and work new jobs, we can never make more time or recapture what has already been spent. But considering how much work dominates our lives, we question concepts around working and time relatively little.

While paid employment can provide security, for many, jobs are a means of putting “food on the table” within a work culture that feels more enslaving than natural or joyful. But now there is growing recognition that traditional working patterns no longer serve us. More and more people are searching for freedom from bosses, wages, commuting and consuming, seeking instead the lives we truly want to lead.

Today’s working model stems largely from the Industrial Revolution, whose architects convinced the masses of the importance of disciplined hard work. Rising early to toil all day for others was considered a virtue and this began to form part of the national consciousness. Families started to rely on their wages alone, buying in the food they had previously grown themselves, and work which was governed by the seasons, weather and necessity was replaced with standardised employment. The shift didn’t go unnoticed – poet William Blake was among those criticising the “cogs tyrannic” – but it established a narrow blueprint for a “dutiful citizen” which is largely still accepted today.

While capitalism was supposed to save society from having to labour as much, we have never worked more.

But now people are speaking out anew. The gift and sharing economies have grown in response to a system which means many people feel they’re unable to give what they want because “there’s no money in it”. While corporations have long used our money, skills, lives and arguably even relationships and health to build their businesses, many people are now seeking alternative routes toward financially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually rewarding lives.

“More and more people are searching for freedom from bosses, wages, commuting and consuming, seeking instead the lives we truly want to lead.”

Institutions are experimenting with change, too. The city council in the Swedish city of Gothenburg has trialled a program of six-hour working days, hoping the move could create a healthier and happier workforce. In Japan – where a culture of overwork is particularly ingrained – the government is considering making it a legal requirement for workers to take more days of paid holiday each year.

And in the UK, a YouGov survey last year found that 57 percent of workers would support a four-day week, something championed by the New Economics Foundation. It says a ‘normal’ 40-hour week is neither natural nor inevitable and insists a shorter, more flexible working week would be good for people, the environment and the economy too.

At the same time, the size of the self-employed workforce in the UK has soared. Self-employed people now account for a record 15 percent of the workforce, totalling more than 4.6m people. While some argue this shift stems from people being unable to find full-time jobs, other surveys suggest people have deliberately chosen this route.

If our needs are to play, love, create and to connect with others and with nature, there seems to be a renewed effort to ask how we can nurture them. How could we better devote our energy and time to the areas of life that work – and money – cannot reach?

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Tom HodgkinsonTom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and author
“We need to increase the time we spend doing voluntary, fun work, or to put it another way: playing.”

As William Morris and Bertrand Russell agreed, there are two types of work. One is unpleasant and done solely for money. And the other is creative and feeds our souls. But it is perhaps not the nature of the work, but more the conditions under which it is done, that really matter. The lawyer might well enjoy digging his garden at the weekend. But for an underpaid immigrant working twelve hours a day in the rain, doing the same work, digging, for a gang master, might be seen as unpleasant in the extreme. In the same way, I might enjoy mucking out a stable if I have chosen to do it, and if I own the stable. If I am forced to muck out a stable by an authority, I am very unlikely to enjoy it, even though it is exactly the same job.

This means that work is good if we voluntarily choose to do it. Therefore we all need to consider whether we need to quit our job and get a different one, or quit our job and create our own work life as a self-employed person. If, for whatever reason, this option is simply not practicable, then we ought to make better use of our leisure time. Instead of indulging in television or shopping, we should reclaim our leisure time for creative or useful or intellectually fulfilling pursuits, such as gardening, brewing beer or reading a book. On an individual level, and as a society, we need to reduce the time spent doing unpleasant work under coercion, and increase the time doing voluntary, fun work, or to put it another way: playing.”

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Dr Joanne SwansonD. JoAnne Swanson, founder of Rethinking the Job Culture and

“An unconditional basic income could free us up to do necessary work without anxiety about paying for our basic necessities.”

We can ask provocative questions that call attention to the systemic functions of wage labour. For example: why must we work to “earn a living”? Why should paid jobs be the main means by which income is distributed, and by which most people gain access to necessities like food and shelter? And why – in the US at least – is health insurance tied to paid employment?

‘Earning a living’ has come to seem inevitable to many people, but there are other ways to live. We could start by giving everyone an unconditional basic income.

So many people hate their jobs, and only endure them so they can put a roof over their head and food on the table. This is not the way we are meant to live! But our coercive system of enforced scarcity ensures that wage labour is the only way most of us can meet our fundamental survival needs.

Most of us want to be useful and do work that uses our gifts, but the system we have now makes that difficult, if not impossible. Certainly there’s no shortage of work that needs to be done, but a lot of it is unpaid, and there aren’t enough paid jobs to go around even in the best-case scenario. So why try to shoehorn everyone into paid jobs? An unconditional basic income could free us up to do necessary work – and enjoy greater leisure time too – without anxiety about paying for our basic necessities.

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Sarah LyallSarah Lyall, researcher in the Social Policy team at the New Economics Foundation
“Moving to shorter hours would challenge the prevailing assumption that the main purpose of life is to work more to earn more to buy more.”

Fewer hours of paid work per person is a guaranteed route to a better, balanced and inclusive labour market in the context of little or no economic growth. Today, the official norm is between 37.5 and 40 hours. No-one is supposed to work more than 48 hours a week, but there are plenty of exceptions to this rule and many opt out and work longer. One in five works more than 45 hours a week. Our proposal is for a new norm of 30 hours, moving over a longer period towards a working week of 21 hours.

Moving to fewer hours would challenge the prevailing assumption that the main purpose of life is to work more to earn more to buy more. It would give us more time to participate in local activities, enjoy our families and friendships, and cultivate creative pursuits. It would reduce the amount of resource-intensive consumption associated with being busy and time-poor, such as processed ready-meals, flying instead of taking the train and travelling by car rather than walking, cycling or taking public transport.

There is no evidence that fewer hours are bad for a country’s economic performance as measured by GDP. Indeed, many countries with fewer than average working hours have stronger than average economies. Our research has consistently found that workers on fewer hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour, while workers who are better able to balance paid employment with unpaid responsibilities have higher wellbeing and constitute a more loyal, stable and committed workforce.

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Justine RobertslrJustine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet
“We’d like to see companies acknowledge the absolute centrality of family to their employees’ lives.”

Rather than the ‘concept’ of work needing to be redefined, we would do better to address the ongoing lack of flexible-working and family-friendly workplaces.

Too often, we hear about parents who feel under pressure to pretend they’ve no interest at all in starting a family – right up to the point that they have their three-month scan. Rather than perpetuating a situation in which workers feel they have to conceal this side of themselves, we’d like to see companies acknowledge the absolute centrality of family to their employees’ lives. A culture in which anyone feels able to discuss their work-life balance with their boss, without fear of losing their job or missing out on a promotion, would increase employee loyalty and job satisfaction no end, and yield rich rewards for everyone.

Whenever we ask Mumsnet users how employers could do better, we always get the same answer: flexibility. More than a third of Mumsnet and Gransnet staff work part-time, or from home at least one day a week. Mobile technology is also making flexible working more possible than ever. Ideally the concept of ‘office hours’ will become increasingly obsolete and, as everyone’s working hours deregulate, mothers who work outside the home and require flexible hours to balance work and family will become less conspicuous; the relative importance of ability over ability-to-stay-in-the-office-after-5pm will increase.

All the evidence suggests that flexible working increases productivity and helps with staff retention. Companies who take the leap are rewarded with dedicated, hard-working and loyal staff.

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Helena Norberg-HodgelrHelena Norberg-Hodge, author, filmmaker and director of Local Futures
“The worldwide localisation movement supports an economic shift that slows down the ‘work and spend’ treadmill.”

If you’re feeling overworked, financially stressed and depressed about the state of the planet, I have some good news for you. Looking at the world through different lenses can help you become a little kinder towards yourself and the rest of humanity.

The new lenses require us to step back and look at our economic system. Through globalisation – the deregulation of trade and finance – governments on both the left and right have supported huge banks and corporations at the expense of our jobs and financial security. As a result, most of us are working longer and longer hours to feed our families and keep a roof over our heads. At the same time, we’re bombarded by contradictory messages that tell us that we’re to blame for climate chaos and the extinction of species – while simultaneously urging us to consume more and more in order to create jobs and ‘grow the economy’.

There is a way out. The worldwide localisation movement supports an economic shift that slows down the ‘work and spend’ treadmill, uses fewer resources, and reduces CO2 emissions and other pollution. So far, the most successful demonstrations centre on food – farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, edible schoolyards, urban gardens and more. From the USA and China to the UK and South Africa, these initiatives are bringing health back to our soil, our communities and our economies, while creating jobs that provide real meaning and connection. At the same time, local business alliances and local finance are revitalising economic relationships in other sectors of the economy, making them more accountable and responsible to nature and community.

Localisation bridges the artificial divide between healing people and the planet, between the personal and the political: it’s the economics of happiness.

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Social media debate

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#9: Media that connects
Drama, blame and conflict-focused news stories can often divide us, but positive news stories can foster a sense of community.

Photo credit: © Mike McCune

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  • Shanna J

    Yes, our ancestors did not work as much as we do. If you look into the history of evolution, in the hunter gatherer times people would work more or less 4 hours a day, and they didn’t have houses to clean or dishes to wash because there weren’t any. They got time for quality social interaction and hobbies.

  • Bobbie

    I absolutely ❤️ this article and couldn’t agree more! I am 27 years old and since October 2013 was unable to work due to a rare disorder…that I caused due to stress at work! This has made me reevaluate everything, and I am now a recovering workaholic!
    I came up with the idea of a 100 job challenge, where I am trying 100 different jobs, and writing a blog about each one. I then donate any money that I earn to a charity that helped with my recovery of my rare disorder. People think I’m crazy, and I get a lot of stick for donating so much time to non paid jobs – but I can honestly say it’s the best thing I have ever done!
    Visit www dot 100jobchallenge dot co dot uk if you would like to read more about my story :-)

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  • Michelle Henderson

    A fantastic article. An interesting thing to note is that the opposite of work is not play, it is in fact depression according to Brene Brown’s research from Huston University. If work is not playful, if work drives us into lives that exhaust and stress and erode time for play and fun, it’s likely we will get depressed or at least melancholic, flat and unhappy.

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  • Sabbie

    The problem is that the 40 hour workweek is no longer the baseline. Many companies have laid off workers to save money, and asked those left behind to pick up the slack. Remember when you were a kid, everyone clocked out at 5pm or they were paid overtime? Now, that’s considered a dream job. Raise the overtime pay threshold to $100,000 per year!

  • Joel Casillas

    This article is so spot one, I love the fact that adults agree to the fact that work is taking over our lives. We all need to have some fun, and not worry about getting to work on time. It’s cool to know that places like japan are considering passing a law that would legally require workers to take more paid days, which is an awesome idea. They realize that there all miserable at work, because they don’t have the time to do things that they love to do weather it’s spending time with friends or family. When I get home from work, it’s usually late, and I just sit there and wonder what’s going on with my life, every day that goes by is a day I can never get back, so I hope that someday some law can get passed that would give us more free time to enjoy this short life that were living.

  • Racquel Camarillo

    After reading this article, it really put things into perspective. It’s definitely true that now-a-days people are putting in hours for a job that really doesn’t mean anything to an individual except for the fact that it puts food on the table. The reality is, is that people are only in it for the money, and as much as I want to say that’s not true, it’s harder to sustain a job that you love if it doesn’t pay enough for you to live on your own. This blog talks about how jobs shouldn’t have to compromise what people love to do. It talks about how people should start using more time for leisure activities, rather than working so much. Places such as the UK and Japan want to minimize the work time so that individuals will have more “play time” as they mentioned. I actually thought that was a really cool idea because people are so overwhelmed about money that they take every possible minute at work to help provide. And although that is a very huge effort, it’s also good to have a break once in awhile. The play time that they talked about is a really nice suggestion that I think would help people tremendously.

  • MattDalby

    There is something we can all do to ensure that people are not exploited in soul destroying dead end jobs. Next time you consider buying goods or services ask yourself if someone has been exploited to provide what you want and if there is an alternative. For example do you need to buy vegetables that have been picked by low paid workers who are basically part of a chain gang or could you grow your own? Do you have to buy that book from a company such as Amazon that exploits it’s workforce or could you borrow it from a friend or wait to find it in a charity shop? Do you need that takeaway late at night that is served by someone working antisocial hours for minimal pay? I’m sure this list is almost endless.

  • Jason

    I used to live and work in Hawaii. A 40 hour work week isn’t nearly as depressing as it is here in Oregon in a metal stamping factory. I’ve been wondering how to explain to the world that there are better lives out there without coming off looking like a cad and ungrateful. Almost all I did for fun is now unavailable to me.
    Anyhow, we have moved around the world enough now and now pursuing the picket fence lifestyle.
    a shorter work week would be a blessing.

  • Virginia

    This is really excellent! Good for you.

  • John Baker

    A lot of the attitudes to work stem from the absence of any sense of ownership and this shows in all sorts of ways from minor pilfering to militant industrial action. Although the rule is not hard and fast, places of work such as schools, workers’ cooperatives and team-based operations benefit from a greater sense of ownership and motivation that flows from this. This is closely tied up with the class structure in this country, making it probably the most de-motivating country in Europe for workers.

  • OperaBunny

    40 hours a week would be a dream for me. Like many maths teachers I frequently work over 80 hours in a week during term time and often 40 hours a week in the ‘holidays’. My average is over 60 hours a week if you ignore all holidays completely! I know there are similar problems in other professions. Too much store is set by how long you work rather than how productively you work. Working time legislation is a joke. If employers weren’t allowed to force workers to do crazy hours, there would be more jobs.

  • Sim Liggitt

    As a teacher my working hours have been FAR more than 40 hours a week…….every evening and every weekend, along with all the agony of dealing with conflict, fear and anger on a daily basis . That was when I was in the state sector. I am sorry to say that now that I am working in a private college (for the past two years), not only have my working hours been reduced to only 40 (having been given plenty of time within school to prepare and plan, and having 5 classes of 10 students instead of 11 classes of 30 ), but also that I absolutely LOVE going to work and can’t wait for the next session of teaching to arrive after a break …. work has become a pleasure and fulfilment of my calling in life, working in an environment where learning is a passion and a positive quality….something that is not happening in the state sector. So the hours are not only the issue, though I totally agree that we could all benefit from working 4 days a week, but that what we do and our environment of work are just as important to be developed into a place of aspiration and service.

  • Beth

    I completely agree with this article.

    We spend so much time working that it leaves very little time for us to explore who we really are.
    No time for hobbies or interests. No time to learn and develop and grow into confident self assured individuals.
    Work takes up so much time that the majority of us become like robots doing the same thing day in and day out! Getting up going to work, coming home having dinner and then sit in front of the tv for the rest of the night ready to do it all again in the morning. It becomes a habit that we almost get stuck in with no idea on how to stop. We lose sight of our dreams and our goals, our hobbies and our interests as there is simply “no time”

    If the working hours were cut imagine how much happier people would be and how much better off we would all be?

    We would actually have time to live…rather than exsit.

  • Jen

    I take your point, certainly but the irony is that boycotting certain retailers or service providers cd actually put those albeit exploited staff out of a job. Personally, I do shop ethically when I can but I think the better solution might be to engage in activism and direct protest. Here’s one example from the U.K If you tried to boycott the retailers that don’t pay living wage in Britain you wd struggle to actually shop.

  • Jen

    Check out the discussion of Anti Work in articles like this one by Brian Dean:

    Also this

    And this

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  • Christopher Areglado

    I agree people need to rethink life as an opportunity and not to waste time on self pity, guilt or upset. Go play, laugh, be with the ones you love. Work can be a joy or misery it’s ones own choices that matter. God is my only leader and teacher and life is truely perfect even when it seems it shouldn’t be ? Took 50 years to get here don’t waste a moment bring unhappy. Cindy

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