Cutting working hours rather than raising salaries could put the brakes on our energy use and help the job market to pick up, said Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College yesterday (31 August). She was addressing a Brussels debate on the links between working time and climate change.
So far there is little scientific evidence that shorter working time reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but it has been connected to lower rates of GDP growth, which then reduces energy use.
In recent decades, increased productivity has allowed Europeans to work fewer hours while continuing to enjoy rising salaries. Households in the US, on the other hand, have been increasing their working hours for some time now.
Schor draws a parallel with Europe's considerably smaller ecological footprint. "The divergence in the US and European path is, I believe, a key difference between the two regions. It is an important part of why European materials use and GHG emissions have been far better than the US in terms of the progress they've made," she said.
Shortening working time by 1% reduces the environmental impact by 0.8%, according to research carried out by Jörgen Larsson at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
"This indicates that reduced work time would limit energy use," he said.
Larsson argued that shorter working time helps to combat climate change in two ways. It reduces the energy use of individuals while changing their consumption patterns by limiting their income.
Hence a person with less disposable income would opt out of air travel, summer houses or expensive energy-guzzling home electronics. Moreover, fewer time constraints could encourage cycling or public transport, for instance, instead of car travel, Larsson said.
Shorter hours are also seen as key to getting to grips with rocketing unemployment figures triggered by the economic crisis. In the US, 11 million new jobs will have to be created to return to pre-crash levels, Schor pointed out, adding that the euro zone has not escaped the crisis either.
She argued that the standard approach of creating jobs by increasing GDP growth rate is not working and no stimulus is forthcoming amid political austerity measures. Moreover, the required increase in energy use would not be acceptable due to the ensuing greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
"We need to reduce the rate of GDP growth or we won't be able to reach climate targets," she said. "The other way to think about it is that we're pulling some of this demand out of the system."
This would be justifiable as people would not be getting lower incomes - instead simply receiving some or all of their productivity gains in free time instead of higher salaries, Schor explained. "People are far less attached emotionally to income they haven't yet gotten than to income they have," she added.
A new economic model is emerging out of the debate, based on self-provision. People who work less in the formal sector can dedicate their spare time to reducing their dependence on the market via small-scale activities that do not put a burden on the environment in the same way that industrial production does, Schor continued.
Growing vegetables, generating renewable energy or manufacturing goods in small laboratories are just a few examples of how people and communities can provide for themselves or spark the emergence of a new green business sector, the researcher argued.