In defense of downshifting and work sharing.

Author:White, Anna
 
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In the hope of tackling the twin crises affecting the economy and the climate, governments and institutions around the world have echoed environmental groups in calling for a "Green New Deal." Major government investment in renewable energy and other green initiatives would indeed create thousands of new green jobs, but would it address the underlying drive for endless economic growth that many now believe lies at the heart of our headlong gallop toward ecological destruction?

As convincingly argued by Tim Jackson in his groundbreaking book, Prosperity without Growth, the unlikelihood of "absolute decoupling" (reducing resource use while continuing to grow the economy) means that a different way of ensuring economic stability and maintaining employment is necessary. A growing number of academics and activists who recognize the tendency for New Deal economics to rely on a "grow your way out of unemployment" approach are calling for an alternative route to sustainability--reducing the working week and sharing paid employment equitably in a steady-state economy.

A recent report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) makes a particularly compelling argument for work sharing in their proposal for a new "normal" working week for Britain of 21 hours. "While some are overworking, over-earning and over-consuming, others can barely afford life's necessities," wrote one of the report's authors in the Guardian. "A much shorter working week would help us all to live more sustainable, satisfying lives by sharing out paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population."

In her new book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, Juliet Schor similarly argues for fewer and more evenly spread hours spent in paid employment. A long-time advocate of work sharing, she maps out a vision for a new economics that would not only allow more time for family and community, but would also give people the opportunity to acquire goods and services in more ecologically friendly ways outside of the fossil-fuel intensive market economy.

Making the time to live sustainably

An enduring myth of industrial capitalism is that as technological advances have increased labor productivity, we no longer have to work as hard to meet our material needs. That it takes fewer people to produce the same amount of goods is undoubtedly true, yet prior to the successes of the labor movement in the late nineteenth century, industrialization drove working hours to their highest level in...

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