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More evidence on productivity and shorter working weeks

The ABC this week reported some research from QuickBooks (a well-known maker of accountancy software) finding “countries that have shorter working weeks, in general, are more productive, whereas countries which have a culture of presenteeism and long desk hours actually get less out of their teams”. The article goes on to note another company, Unilever, experimenting with four-day weeks in its New Zealand offices.

As it is described in the article, QuickBooks’ research doesn’t say whether countries like Germany (with short working hours) are more productive because they work shorter hours, or whether they can afford to work shorter hours because they are more productive. Presumably an industrialised high-technology country like Germany can produce more in any given hour than less-industrialised countries like South Africa, mentioned in the article as having the longest working week, so workers in the former just don’t need to work as longer as workers in the latter to end up with the same amount of stuff.

An interesting question might be how Germans got their working week down to twenty-eight hours while Australia remains at thirty-five, and plenty of people think we’re a lazy bunch for working even that. The news articles that I found—the one at CNN appeared at the top of my search results—put it down to a metalworkers’ union that negotiated a right for its members to work twenty-eight-hour weeks for two years, before returning to thirty-five-hour weeks. According the Guardian, a great majority of the union’s members nominated “free time” as something to be negotiated with employers and, thanks to low unemployment and high economic growth, the union had sufficient power to get employers on board.

I haven’t heard of any Australian unions looking to reduce working hours for their members, though ensuring that we actually work no more than the nominal number of hours for which are employed has come up as a topic in both of the unions with which I’ve been associated. And of course many countries observe Labour Day each year, recognising the union movement’s achievement in getting us to an eight-hour work day. But for most part public debate centres on how to produce ever more stuff and not on what might be the best use of our time.

Still, articles like the above chip away at public debate framed as if economic production is the end goal of society. We can, if we choose, make more free time a goal, and it can in fact be achieved.

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