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Illustrations by Andre Metzger

All In A Days Work

The answer to greening business might just be working less.

The United States leads the world in two categories: work and waste. American employees put in more hours and take fewer vacations than just about anyone else in the industrialized world, and our individual ecological "footprints" are much larger.

Coincidence? I think not. The way we work drives our habits of consumption and waste. The more we work, the more we drive, the more energy we burn, the more styrofoam to-go containers we use. At the end of the day, we're so tired, we devour more takeout and TV, often falling asleep in front of the latter. If we want to accelerate the recent trend of reducing waste, it may be time to consider the radical step of, well, relaxing more, consuming less, and living fuller lives. May the Wall Street Journal editorial board strike me down.

Working less is a radical notion today, but it hasn't always been. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, work hours declined steadily in the industrialized world. In 1956, then-vice president Richard Nixon said that a four-day workweek was "not too far distant." But men today report working 100 more hours a year than in 1976. For women, it's 200-plus hours. All these extra hours have helped more than double the productivity of the American worker in the past half-century — but they have also increased our energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Naturally, most businesses blanch at the notion of giving up any competitive edge in a globalized economy. But it's not as if moving to a four-day (or 32-hour) workweek would simply lop 20% off the economy. Cutting hours may actually raise per-hour productivity. France, home of the 35-hour week, creates more GDP per work hour than the United States ($37 versus $34, as of 2003). Norway spanks us too ($39), and Norwegians work 26% fewer hours a year than Americans. It's a myth of modern hypercapitalism that an overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed-out workforce is a necessity. Studies have consistently shown that longer workweeks increase productivity only in the very short term. In a recent survey by Salary.com, workers copped to wasting about 20% of the average day Web surfing and gossiping. Sound familiar?

For many years, some lonely crusaders have argued that working less improves the health and well-being of workers, reducing sick days and social alienation. Alas, seemingly none of the newly minted "green" businesses have experimented with fewer hours yet. Some companies are fiddling around the margins with telecommuting and flextime. After many hours searching, the only outfit I could find that is trying a shorter workweek is a nonprofit called the Center for a New American Dream, which advocates for conscious consumerism and work-life balance. "We don't consider our work part time," says executive director Lisa Wise. "We pay a full-time wage and do full-time work within a 32-hour week."

Admittedly, exchanging some of our wealth for downtime is an idea that tacks hard against our Protestant work ethic. But the alternative is bleak: If everyone adopted the U.S. work- and-waste model, global temperatures could go up 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. The resulting floods, droughts, and diseases would generate an economic hit far worse than any extra vacation time.

Companies can take the first step by reinventing the workweek. Then it's up to us to devote our increased leisure hours to activities with low environmental impact — and not to driving around gas-guzzling cars or booting up power-hungry electronics. Then we could enjoy both continued wealth and improved planetary health.

David Roberts also covers green issues for Grist, an online environmental magazine.
Illustrations by Andre Metzger

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8 Comments

  • Devin Harry

    This article is a great example of how you can "cherry-pick" statistics to prove almost any point, regardless of the validity.

    I appreciate that the author is an environmental activist and is anxious to convince his readers that his plan for reducing our "ecological footprint" (EcoFoot) is viable. Of course, there's no evidence that there is anything wrong with our EcoFoot at all. Unless you count the many environmentalist, such as Dave I imagine, who labor under the theory that a country should produce a percentage of the world's carbon (or consume a percentage of the world's energy) proportionate to its population. This makes no sense in practical terms since every country in the world is at different stages in their industrial development, have populations of citizens with different skillsets, have different governments that encourage (i.e. regulate and tax) their economies differently, etc. But I digress.

    The main rational behind Dave's theory, that US workers should work less in order to reduce our levels of consumption and waste, are statistics that compare a country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour worked by the population. This is the point where Dave's argument goes off the tracks faster than an overloaded Indian commuter train.

    First off, the stats Dave cherry-picked are from 2003, even though more recent numbers are available. Why did Dave do this you might wonder? Because the 2003 numbers better support his argument, while the numbers from 2006 are less supportive. Secondly, Dave's is comparing the US, with an ethnically diverse population of over 300 million, with the tiny, ethnically homogenous country of Norway, with a population of less than 5 million. This is an apples and oranges comparison. I'd wager I could find a region of the US with around 5 million people that would meet or exceed Norway's numbers. But what would that mean, anyway? Nothing at all, which is exactly what Dave's numbers mean.

    A much more meaningful comparison would be the US versus the European Union, with approximately 500 million citizens. Also, if you're going to compare apples to apples, you should use GDP per capita, which more fully represents a country's economic power. (GDP per capita includes both GDP per hour worked, also called labor utilization, and income produced per hour worked, also called productivity).

    As of 2007 (note my use of the most recent data), the EU had a GDP per capita of 28,213 while the dirty, smelly, wasteful United States comes in at 43,500. So, using normalized statistics, US workers produce, on average, 154% more than workers in the EU. Also, the numbers I'm using are measured in US dollars, while Dave's old, cherry-picked numbers are measured in something called "international dollars," whatever that is.

    So, Dave, it's not the case where we'd just be "exchanging some of our wealth for downtime." Going to a four-day workweek would, in fact, lop 20% (or more) off the US economy, which is much more productive that that in the EU. Who is going to pay for the unemployment, welfare and other benefits for the US workers who are laid off because they're part of that 20%? Hmmm, Dave? I imagine you don't have an answer to that.

    The truth of modern capitalism is that it works, it's workers are more productive and have a higher standard of living. But don't let that stop you Dave. I'm sure you could send your resume over to the Center for a New American Dream, where they pay "a full-time wage" for a "32-hour week". What? The salary is less than half of what you make now? Ask them to pay you in international dollars. That way, you'll be able to better compare your lower living standards to friends in Norway.
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  • Guest

    Talk about cherry picking stats, Craig! Who says that the US would lose jobs because of that 20%? Who says that our country even gives unemployment or welfare to everyone who needs it?

    More money isn't the same thing as a higher standard of living. Looking up any research on subjective well-being will prove this.

    Capitalism can work in other ways. Is France horribly poor? Is Sweden in need of help? No, and they work less.

    Modern capitalism only works for the people with the power, or those who own corporations and can scare people like you into working 50 hours a week, thinking that unless they can afford to buy a plasma TV, all is lost. And Ray, why is your definition of leisure so limited--and what good is a car if you never have time to drive long distances? Have you never heard of the train system in Europe? I hope you're being sarcastic.

  • Dermot Tynan

    "Compare your appropriate workers in America to their European counterparts, and that excess means that the American is in living in a 4bed/3bath house with a good sized yard. The European lives in a smallish apartment."

    Seriously?

    I lived in California (in an apartment) for ten years. I now live in "oppressed" Europe in a large house overlooking the sea and I take 22 days vacation a year with 9 public holidays. The compromise is that people should be able to take additional (unpaid) vacation in the US if they wish or to be able to work less hours if they so wish. Cost of living and standard of living are also considerations when you look at productivity. Unless of course, other peoples productivity directly impacts your own income and standard of living.

  • corky brown

    Being forced to stay a desk for 40 hours a week, regardless of workload, sounds more like serfdom to me. Of course, every American should have the right to work 50+ hour weeks. It's a right many of us "enjoy" right now. Often, the 50+ hr week is not a choice but rather, it is imperative if one expects to receive promotions or bonuses.

    The right we are missing is the one that permits us to choose the 30 hour work week. Flexible work is not idealism; it's admitting you have a life outside of work that is just as important.

  • corky brown

    Being forced to stay at a desk 40 hours a week (regardless of workload) sounds more like serfdom to me. Sure, people should have the right to work 50 hours a week - it's a "right" (complusion?) most have today. Often, that 50+ hour week is not a free will choice but imperative if one expects to get promotions or bonuses.

    The right we are missing is the one that permits us to chose a 30 hour week. Flexible work is not idealism; it's admitting there is a life outside of work that is just as important.

  • Ray Gardner

    Anyone read the numerous recent articles on Europe turning to the Right? Seems that their central planning is failing, and the only glimmers of economic hope are from the free-market minded reforms.
    Corky;
    Your idealism is admirable, but it's simply not realistic.
    In short, your world view requires subjectively imposing your definition of "a better life" on those who are otherwise free to make their own choices.
    Who are you to say that people shouldn't be free to work 50 hours a week so they can afford as many toys as they want?
    Really.
    Who are you to say such a thing?
    Among all of this excess, people are still free to choose to work a straight 40, donate their extra time to good causes and simply forego the extra car, or drive a used SUV instead of a new one, or whatever.
    My wife and I have made several decisions over the years to simplify our lives, and we're better for it, but I would never force those same decisions on other individual citizens.
    That's not freedom, that's serfdom your preaching.
    Compare your appropriate workers in America to their European counterparts, and that excess means that the American is in living in a 4bed/3bath house with a good sized yard. The European lives in a smallish apartment.
    The American drives wherever he pleases, which opens him and his family up to many other value adding activities; taking the kids to soccer, the girls to dance, the boys to whatever, then to S'bucks and Coldstone and they've had a great night out with the family. Quality time.
    The European enjoys recreation, refreshments, et cetera, but not at the same leisure. Their options are artificially limited by a small minority of their government that has decided what is best for them.
    David:
    I don't know if your lack of intellectual rigor in writing this article, or the arrogance it took to write it are more offensive.
    Really.
    The baseless assumptions made, the opinions passed as settled fact, the projection of questionable ideals.
    Incredible.

  • corky brown

    Mr. Iskowitz,

    Perhaps you've been a CEO too long and do not remember what it is like to be a worker with no time off for family responsibility, doctor's appointments or even an afternoon free to go vote.

    What has all this grand GDP gotten us? The kind of higher standard of living that Americans enjoy often equates to being able to upgrade to a flat screen TV, to buy a second, third or fourth car. Our GDP is about excess, not about quality of life. And if the US economy begins to quiver with need for labor after a 4 day work week in introduced, perhaps use can be made of those millions unemployed and those looking for part-time work.

    America used to be known for its innovation. Is modern capitalism a dead thing that should never evolve with the times? Such resistance to change met the reformist who argued for the existing 5 day work week. What you, Mr. Iskowitz, have lost sight of – is that an economy should serve its people and not simply perpetuate itself.

  • Craig Iskowitz

    This article is a great example of how you can "cherry-pick" statistics to prove almost any point, regardless of the validity.

    I appreciate that the author is an environmental activist and is anxious to convince his readers that his plan for reducing our "ecological footprint" (EcoFoot) is viable. Of course, there's no evidence that there is anything wrong with our EcoFoot at all. Unless you count the many environmentalist, such as Dave I imagine, who labor under the theory that a country should produce a percentage of the world's carbon (or consume a percentage of the world's energy) proportionate to its population. This makes no sense in practical terms since every country in the world is at different stages in their industrial development, have populations of citizens with different skillsets, have different governments that encourage (i.e. regulate and tax) their economies differently, etc. But I digress.

    The main rational behind Dave's theory, that US workers should work less in order to reduce our levels of consumption and waste, are statistics that compare a country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour worked by the population. This is the point where Dave's argument goes off the tracks faster than an overloaded Indian commuter train.

    First off, the stats Dave cherry-picked are from 2003, even though more recent numbers are available. Why did Dave do this you might wonder? Because the 2003 numbers better support his argument, while the numbers from 2006 are less supportive. Secondly, Dave's is comparing the US, with an ethnically diverse population of over 300 million, with the tiny, ethnically homogenous country of Norway, with a population of less than 5 million. This is an apples and oranges comparison. I'd wager I could find a region of the US with around 5 million people that would meet or exceed Norway's numbers. But what would that mean, anyway? Nothing at all, which is exactly what Dave's numbers mean.

    A much more meaningful comparison would be the US versus the European Union, with approximately 500 million citizens. Also, if you're going to compare apples to apples, you should use GDP per capita, which more fully represents a country's economic power. (GDP per capita includes both GDP per hour worked, also called labor utilization, and income produced per hour worked, also called productivity).

    As of 2007 (note my use of the most recent data), the EU had a GDP per capita of 28,213 while the dirty, smelly, wasteful United States comes in at 43,500. So, using normalized statistics, US workers produce, on average, 154% more than workers in the EU. Also, the numbers I'm using are measured in US dollars, while Dave's old, cherry-picked numbers are measured in something called "international dollars," whatever that is.

    So, Dave, it's not the case where we'd just be "exchanging some of our wealth for downtime." Going to a four-day workweek would, in fact, lop 20% (or more) off the US economy, which is much more productive that that in the EU. Who is going to pay for the unemployment, welfare and other benefits for the US workers who are laid off because they're part of that 20%? Hmmm, Dave? I imagine you don't have an answer to that.

    The truth of modern capitalism is that it works, it's workers are more productive and have a higher standard of living. But don't let that stop you Dave. I'm sure you could send your resume over to the Center for a New American Dream, where they pay "a full-time wage" for a "32-hour week". What? The salary is less than half of what you make now? Ask them to pay you in international dollars. That way, you'll be able to better compare your lower living standards to friends in Norway.