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A new age. New work rules needed

Well, it’s happened. When Trump enters the White House, he will be the oldest US president (70) of all time. At the beginning of the primaries, odds on him winning were 150-1. The joke candidate has now become the the leader of the free world and once the initial laughter has died down, we will all be wondering when exactly our world is going to end.

But, in the meantime, we have to get on with our day-to-day lives and try to improve our lot, in the hope that syphilis or an assassin’s bullet will take care of events beyond our control.

We wrote recently about the stress Japanese workers are under, but the same also applies to European and UK workers. Fetishising work, in an era where cutbacks are rife and finding new employment extremely difficult, is making us unhappy. We need to recalibrate things.

Work pressure can take a heavy toll on homelife; bosses expect employees to put work above all else and most people are available (phone/email) to work all day, every day. The latest poll from YouGov, says over a quarter of workers already work more hours than they want, or signed up for.

The picture is not a healthy one; high levels of stress and anxiety are normal, people get ill because they’ve lost control of their time, marriages are damaged and children suffer. Yet, it is a picture we’re invited to applaud. Political parties all praise ‘strivers’ and ‘hard-working families’, never ‘chilled-out fathers’ or dedicated ‘housewives. No, the more and harder we work, the more admirable we must be (and less strain on the state).

All the main UK political parties insist that the only successful economy is one that grows, preferably faster than other economies. Growth calls for greater productivity: getting more output per unit of input. The system is greedy for more resources, but workers and machines have to do more for less. More efficient processes (including more robots) reduce the amount of human input required. So those who have jobs must work harder – and longer hours – to hang on to what they’ve got and to keep the economy growing.

But, because robots can’t do everything yet, there are new flurries of low-end jobs with zero-hours contracts, insulting pay and no security. This class has been called the “precariat” and much of it thrives on the over-busyness of other workers. It ferries people home at night (Uber), delivers fast food (Deliveroo) and fixes things around the house (TaskRabbit). Many precarious workers have to do two or three jobs just to make ends meet. So they are under heavy pressures too, often torn between poverty and an intolerable work-life balance.

What can be done? First, we should take back control of the workplace. This means workers in all settings finding ways to organise and build up bargaining rights. For the casualised precariat, it could mean building new digital platforms to rival the technological giants that have cornered the market so far.

Second, this is a challenge for men and women. Much of the stress and unhappiness that women experience at work is because they take on most of the unpaid work at home. Until men really share the housework and childcare, they are unlikely to be powerful advocates for a more humane regime in the workplace.

Thirdly, move to shorter hours of paid work for everyone. This has long been argued by the New Economics Foundation and there is growing evidence of its many benefits. Nobody should have to work more than four days or 30 hours a week, even in today’s 24-7 economy. As some jobs are automated out of existence, others could be created to cover the hours left unworked by the newly unstressed.

It should be a gradual shift, with minimal impact on pay. For example, suppose all workers over 50 take a one-hour cut in their working week each year. If they start with a 40-hour week, they can be doing 30 hours at 60 and 20 hours at 70. And suppose all young people entering the labour market for the first time start on a 30-hour week – and stay that way, with each new cohort adding to the numbers, until it becomes the new ‘normal’. What if all workers in organisations where there is an annual round of pay negotiations were to trade a bit more time each year for a smaller pay rise?

All this should go hand in hand with a higher minimum wage, more generous child benefit and a more secure ‘social income’ in terms of high-quality services that are collectively funded and provided (education, health and social care, childcare, housing etc.) If rubbish wages force people to work around the clock, the problem is pay: it’s not a sensible argument against shorter hours.

If 30 hours became the new standard working week, for women and for men, across all kinds of jobs, from doctors to delivery drivers, from teachers to those in the service-industries, there would be a lot less stress and anxiety at work and at home. We would have more control over our lives, more time to look after one another. We could slow down and relax more – and rely less on carbon-intensive fast food and travel. We would have more time to be active in our communities and in politics. More time to campaign for a new working culture that respects love, family and friendship instead of fetishising ‘hard work’. And best of all, we could build an economy that enables people to flourish, instead of one that is totally fixated on growth.

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