The working week is going to get shorter
Germany’s biggest workers union won a key victory in their fight for a better work-life balance this February. IG Metall, a union with approximately 3.9 million members in the electrical and metalworking industries, has successfully won the right for its members to work a 28 hour week for the next two years.
Whilst this is a temporary measure, the benefits of people working fewer hours are so clear that it is hard not to see this becoming an established trend in the future. Whilst the news has been met with a wave of disbelief amongst those who think that working more hours is somehow a noble goal in itself, it becomes a better idea the more you think about it.
The history of organised labour is in part a quest for more people-friendly working hours; that we no longer work 12 hour days, seven days a week is thanks to unions, and it makes sense that unions are leading us into the 21st century on this issue. As technology improves, less work is needed to produce more, and so there isn’t the need for people to work themselves quite as hard to achieve the same results.
The rise of the machines has been one of the emerging technology themes of recent years. Automation is set to take millions of jobs in the coming decade and be the next step in producing more with fewer people. There is simply going to be no need to maintain the 40 hour working week for the sake of it, especially in sectors such as electronics and manufacturing. An economy with higher productivity is supposed to produce superior living standards, for instance by providing more leisure time or greater economic rewards. With robotic workers set to reduce costs and produce more, workers should begin to feel the benefits in both respects.
The benefits of a shorter working week are well established. Every study says that people who work shorter hours are more productive, and that giving people more free time notably improves people’s physical and mental health. It is also speculated, with a fair amount of working evidence, that shorter working hours would improve gender equality; women currently do far more “unpaid work” than men, and this balance could be redressed if everyone had more time to play with. Overconsumption of resources would fall and pollution would be reduced as people had to travel less often.
Those are just some of the many benefits of the shorter working week, and many people are starting to advocate for it. Figures as diverse as NHS doctors in the UK, UN health agencies looking to reduce the amount of cars on the road and telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim are united in their promotion of everyone working fewer hours.
IG Metall’s victory is a big one for workers in Germany and in time it could prove to be something of a watershed. Everyone from the workers and their families to the global elite would benefit from shorter working weeks, and as the conversation about automation continues to take shape it is likely that this idea is not going to go away. This is not yet a permanent revolution, but it is the first major reimagining of what work could look like in the 21st century.