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Setting aside time for consumption

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, recently suggested that employers consider a four-day working week as a way of giving New Zealanders time to travel and in doing so assist New Zealand’s tourism industry recover from the severe downturn induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ABC’s Gareth Hutchens reports that some economists are not impressed; he quotes the Australian National University’s Rabee Tourky, for example, as saying “For heaven’s sake. We need six-day work weeks to make up for lost time”. Hutchens notes that the idea of “catching up” is problematic since much of the work that hasn’t taken place during the pandemic simply no longer exists (restaurant meals that were never served, trips that were never taken, etc.). But the main thrust of the article is to point out that similar critics once thought that having a weekend was an unachievable utopia. Yet, seventy years after Australia instituted weekends, nations that have them (including Australia) are the richest and most prosperous ones that have ever existed.

Tourky, being an academic, presumably has some more sophisticated analysis that he wasn’t able to fit into the tweet quoted in Hutchen’s article. But both Tourky’s comment and the anti-weekend diatribe that Hutchens quotes from 1948, however, appeal at least superficially to an understanding that we all ought to be producing as much as possible. I’ve noted before that this belief might fail on its own terms if people working four days a week produce as much or more as ones working five days a week, as seems to be the case in a number of reports. But Ardern’s comments also make the point that somebody actually needs to make use of all this production: tourism operators working even seven days a week won’t do any good if there aren’t any holiday-makers to take advantage of them.

Of course there are other industries that might benefit from us getting back to work; my own employer has cut costs by reducing the maintenance of its buildings and grounds while the campuses work restricted hours, for example, and I’m saving a good deal of money on transport to and from said campuses. Yet would anyone suggest that we wear out our buildings faster and drive around Sydney simply so that building repairers and petrol stations can “catch up” on several months of work?

As it happens, I have myself just begun thinking about how I might spend a few days away when restrictions are removed in New South Wales. Working part-time, and not needing to go to my office even on the days that I do work for as long as campuses are closed, I hope to have a few days mid-week without needing to take leave from my job. I look forward to both me being better for the break, and my destinations being better for the money I spend. Wearing out my desk can wait.

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