Working shorter for the climate?

Soem writes*

As our economy grows, emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases also grow. Countries with larger economies are typically larger polluters than countries with smaller economies. In fact, the only time before the COVID-19 pandemic the world’s carbon pollution went down rather than up was during the 2008 financial crisis.

‘Decoupling’ economic growth from environmental deterioration is often presented as a sustainable way to have ‘green growth’. For pollution to go down, the carbon emissions per unit of GDP would need to fall faster than combined economic and population growth. In my opinion, this is very challenging if not impossible.

Enter degrowth: the movement that strives for a happier live with a smaller economy and therefore lower emissions. One of the showpieces of the degrowth movement is the four-day work week. The idea is that people working fewer hours will spend more time with family, friends, and their hobbies. While employees will take a lower pay, they will live richer lives taking value from hobbies and social interactions rather than financial transactions. And as people have a lower salary, they will buy less, less is produced, and emissions are lower.

Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash

A longer weekend that helps the environment sounds attractive, but test runs show that shorter working weeks do not necessarily mean degrowth. Dutch marketing firm Loyals was able to introduce an extra day off for all personnel without reducing salaries or productivity. The New Zealand trust Perpetual Guardian cut working hours from 40 to 32 hours per week, while still paying for a full work week. According to J. Haar, a professor who studied New Zealand, “actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.” A trial at Microsoft Japan even found that a four day work-week boosted productivity by 40%, measured in sales per employee.

Bottom Line: An extra day can be nice for employees as it allows them to spend more time on the household and hobbies or with friends and family. However, the productivity of the firms mentioned above did not go down and therefore employees did not get a lower pay. This means that production and consumption, and therefore GDP, did not de-grow. While a shorter work week is promising, it will not in all cases contribute to a environmentally stable degrowth economy.

* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Working shorter for the climate?”

  1. A very interesting post Soem! Who doesn’t want an extra day off work?

    The concerns you raise are valid. If longer weekends do not mean lowered productivity and therefore, reduced salaries, will a change to four-day workdays lead to degrowth? As you show with a few examples from companies who have adopted the model of working fewer hours, it seems that the new model would not yield the desired result of degrowth. However, working fewer hours could still be a solution.

    As of now, a three-day weekend is not a widespread phenomenon, but the effects of a just few companies on lowering the level of CO2 or achieving degrowth is limiting. Perhaps it would be different if the whole country, not only a few firms, would embark on this new three-day weekend model. Not all companies, would be able to maintain the same level of productivity, and certainly smaller enterprises, would not be therefore able to continue paying the same salaries. Further, even things such as commuting to work less or not grabbing lunch near work would reduce both the consumption and the carbon footprint per capita.

    However, one challenge is, what will people do with their free time? As you mentioned, the assumption for the fall of emissions is that people who work fewer hours will spend more time with their families and friends, as well as on their hobbies and not on financial transactions. This might not necessarily be true. We are a part of a system where, for many, leisure time still equals spending (going shopping, restaurants, etc.). The challenge is, therefore, ensuring that additional free time is not devoted to further expenditures.

    What are your thoughts on this? Would the results of working fewer hours be different if adopted on the macro-level? And how important is it to ensure that free time does not result in further spending?

  2. Hey Soem, really interesting topic. I would definitely be in favor of a 4 day work week. When I was reading your blog, it came to mind that when I am free I personally spend twice as much as when I am in uni. Eating out, going shopping etc…
    I do not know if this holds for more people than myself, but I think that maybe this would be interesting to look into for your final paper. Good luck writing:)

  3. Hey! I have always really liked the idea of a 4-day workweek, especially given how burnouts are increasing. However, there is one concept I am struggling with a little bit: you are linking the 4-day workweek to sustainability, but I am not really sure how those two are linked. Presumably, providers would still need to be accessible for the same amount of time as before. Thus, essentially, you are going to need more workers for the same productivity.
    I have always seen this solution more as a response to various problems in the labour market: shortages of jobs or burnouts, but not necessarily sustainability. I was wondering if you maybe could elaborate on that.

    1. Hey Romée,

      Thanks for your response. The basic idea is as follows: if people would work less, they are less productive in a week. If all workers would work less, total weekly productivity is lower, therefore emissions are lower. Of course there is a good chance that new people will enter the labour market, but I don’t think that this makes up for the reduction in total production.

      Another way of thinking about this is from the demand side: work less, earn less, buy less. Buying less means lower production, therefore lower emissions. The basic idea still holds even if opening hours are the same, although one way to implement shorting work time is more holidays.

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