The 42-Hour Week
Longer working hours are always proposed as a magic cure for weak economic growth. The opposite is sensible.
By Helmut Spitzley
[This article originally published in: die tageszeitung, November 25, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.taz.de/pt/2003/11/25/a0122.nf/textdruck.]
Several prominent German politicians favor longer working hours. The voices urging extended working hours multiply in the media and in discussions. However the facts are often faded out.
Germany is at a level of prosperity unparalleled in our history. More and more is produced in an ever-shorter time with fewer and fewer workers. We will top last year's production record with this year's growth of "only" 0.5 percent.
The German economy also leads the way in the international comparison. Unit labor costs are competitive and allow high export- and balance of payments surpluses. An extension of working hours is not necessary to maintain our level of prosperity and to organize the social security systems in a future-friendly way. How the labor and the product of shared work are distributed between employers and employees and between the generations and the genders is contested.
Fewer and fewer workers are needed because we work more effectively. To create additional jobs, the German economy must grow more than two percent. To really overcome mass unemployment, the economy must grow over five percent for many years. Such high growth rates were possible in the building phase after the Second World War. Today they are illusory.
Thus we face the choice between high unemployment and redistribution of existing paid work. Societies that adjust the average working hours to the quantity of available workers act in an economically prudent way. As a result, an extension of working hours given high unemployment is bizarre. Paid work would concentrate in fewer and fewer persons. The compatibility of occupation and family will be harder. New employees and mothers/ fathers returning in occupations would make a mess of employment chances.
The demand for extending working hours fundamentally opposes the goal of the compatibility of occupation and family and generational justice. Is it socially rational to force 60-year old grandfathers to work longer through abolishing senior part-time when his 40-year old daughter or his 20-year old grandson is unemployed.
The advocates of longer working hours think in an economically shortsighted way. They want to close holes but in reality they open new holes. When working hours are extended, businesses need fewer personnel. The consequences are personnel surplus and personnel reduction. Hiring new workers is blocked. The number of contributors to the social security systems falls. At the same time spending for unemployment insurance increases. On top of this, extended working hours make people sick in the long run and burden the health- and pension systems.
That businesses can profit from shorter working hours speaks against the extension of working hours urged by some politicians. Instead of managing with a few overstrained personnel, better results can be realized with co-workers working short and flexible hours. In periods of slack sales, corporations like VW, Opel and Telecom use legal possibilities for reducing working hours. Since 1994, every fifth business in the German metal- and electrical industries has applied the wage law to lower working hours. Studies show that three-quarters of businessmen have had positive experiences with shorter working hours.
On the other hand, extending working hours destroys flexibility since limits of capacity are quickly reached with too few personnel. In contrast, shorter working hours create free spaces in which businesses and their employees can "breathe" better and adjust their personal-political puzzle to the changing market conditions.
A glance at other EU (European Union) countries shows that low unemployment is not the result of long working hours. From an empirical standpoint, the opposite seems true. According to calculations of the Economic- and Social Science Institute of the union-friendly Hans Bockler foundation, countries with relatively short weekly working hours are successful in employment policy. Actual weekly working hours (including part-time) amount to 33.7 in Denmark and only 29.5 hours in the Netherlands (EU-average 35.5). At the same time the unemployment rate in these countries is low, 4.7 percent in Denmark and only 3.2 percent in the Netherlands. In Germany, however, people work longer with 36.1 weekly hours. The German unemployment rate at 8.2 percent is also higher than in Denmark or the Netherlands.
Current policy determines the distribution of paid work, unpaid work for and with children (and seniors) and engagement for socially useful civil projects. In the land of the productivity world master, the pressure to a general extension of paid working hours is paradoxical. Two currencies exist for prosperity: money and time. Instead of urging longer working hours, the variety of life interests should be considered. The challenge of politics, employees and employers is to take seriously widespread desires to work in a flexible or permanently shorter time according to personal goals and biographical phases.
Therefore it is wrong to punish shorter working hours in financial- or social policy. The opposite is necessary. The bonus model for promoting shorter working hours developed by Swiss social democrats points in this direction. Unfortunately this model has fallen into oblivion under Red-Green. A policy focused on a fair distribution of work and income counteracts social exclusion and existential fears spreading like an epidemic. Positive future expectations, material security and increased time prosperity are important if the delight of bringing children into the world should grow. What we need is "shorter full time work for everyone", a new culture of contentedness and an intelligent working hours policy oriented in the needs of people. The pressure to extend paid working hours is certainly not part of an intelligent policy.