Time is a priceless commodity these days, as people try to pack more into each day while preserving "quality time" for their families. The sense of feeling harried is real. The increase in work hours for Americans over the last 25 years amounts to an extra month of work each year, according to Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American. One in five Canadians works at least 50 hours a week.
Today's economic climate, with its lack of commitment to full employment, merely deepens a mindset that tells us to earn all we can today, for tomorrow we may be out of a job. Many people simply have no choice in the matter. The recent National Study of the Changing Workplace found that nearly two-thirds of workers would like to reduce their time on the job by an average of 11 hours a week.
On the flip side, at least 1.5 million Canadians, 8.4 percent of the workforce, are joblessùfar more if the hidden unemployed are counted. In effect, our society is polarizing into two groups, the overworked and the unemployed.
Buoyed by the success of shorter-work-hour efforts in Europe, an embryonic movement is insisting that it's time to share the available work more fairly. A 32- or 35-hour work week is a common demand, along with curbs on overtime, more use of sabbaticals, and family-friendly personnel policies. Many support shorter work hours as a way to create jobs. Others are excited by the vision of a radically different kind of life, marked by "graceful simplicity," freed from the work-buy-consume treadmill, with more time for families and creativity.
In Canada, some unions and labor leaders, such as Canadian Auto Workers leader Buzz Hargrove, are outspoken advocates of a shorter work week. A thorny issue, however, involves whether shorter hours should involve no loss
in pay, as some trade unionists argue, or entail a corresponding reduction in pay, except for low-paid workers.
Barbara Brandt of the Shorter Work-Time Group in Massachusetts says she doesn't see growing momentum for shorter work hours. "It's not really a movement," says Brandt. "Public consciousness has never said we've got to reduce work hours." She's particularly disappointed by a lack of labor support.
Yet as an epidemic of overtime continues to stress out white-collar workers, Brandt feels the issue is starting to percolate into public awareness. She points to President Clinton's recent support of a law to give parents up to 24 hours a year off work to take their children to medical appointments or teacher meetings.
Meanwhile Europe is making major strides toward shorter hours. France and Italy will move to a standard 35-hour work week by 2001. The Netherlands already has an average 36-hour work week. Facing 12 percent unemployment in the early 1980s, the Dutch government, business, and labor agreed to negotiate shorter work hours as part of the solution to their economic crisis. Now the Dutch unemployment rate is only 4.9 percentùfar less than its neighbors.
"A few years ago, shorter work time was seen as a nice idea, but basically utopian," says Anders Hayden, outreach coordinator of the Toronto group 32 Hours: Action for Full Employment. "What's changed many people's perceptions is seeing that the Europeans are doing it."
While the shorter work hours movement has drawn together environmentalists, trade unionists, and prominent individuals such as Betty Friedan and former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, church support has been largely absent.
"God wants us to enjoy wholeness, yet wholeness is broken by issues of poverty and health which are related to whether one has a job and time for oneself, family, community, and God," notes 32 Hours member Anna Chen, a United Church of Canada minister. "It is difficult for the church to deal with the shorter work week partly because the great majority of ministry personnel are notorious for wanting to work overtime!"
MURRAY MacADAM is a Toronto writer and editor of From Corporate Greed to Common Good: Canadian Churches and Community Economic Development. 32 Hours, 238 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ontario M5V 1Z7; firstname.lastname@example.org. Shorter Work-Time Group, 69 Dover St. #1, Somerville, MA 02144; email@example.com.