In the downturn, more companies are cutting labor costs without layoffs by scaling back the amount of time their employees work: four-day workweeks, unpaid vacation, and forced furloughs.
Unlike the disappearance of 401(k) contributions, this development has a silver lining. Environmentalists, feminists, and work-life balance advocates have been saying for decades that Americans’ breakneck work schedule is bad for people and the planet. There’s a “Take Back Your Time Day” movement; Moms Rising, an advocacy group started by one of the founders of MoveOn, has as one of its principles “open and flexible work;” and the UN’s Environment Program, in a major recent report on green jobs, concluded:
“In the future, not only do jobs need to be more green, their very essence may need to be redefined. A number of countries and companies have wrestled with proposals to reduce individuals’ work time in order to share available work better among all those who desire work.”
For jobs that pay less than a living wage, going part-time is no boon. But for the middle class and above, more time off can be valuable in many ways. Families can save on child-care costs. We could use the time to shop for fresher produce and cook healthy meals rather than grab takeout, to bike or walk rather than drive, or even to exercise, lowering healthcare bills. We can strengthen social capital and community ties by shopping at local markets rather than one-stop big box stores and by volunteering. And of course, we’d have more time to spend with friends and family.
We’re one of the few countries where the richest people actually have less leisure time than those on lower rungs of the ladder. If the merry-go-round were to slow down just a little, we’d have a chance to close the gap on inequality while improving the quality of life for more Americans. Sounds pretty productive for a day off.