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Why the 30-hour work week is almost here


Why the 30-hour work week is almost here

‘Qualified jobseekers are scarce. Finally, workers can make demands’

A friend who recruits for an investment bank grumbled to me recently about millennial job applicants. He said that at interview they ask questions like: “Can I leave early on Friday afternoons to go to yoga?”

Surveys have shown for years that most millennials — male and female — don’t want to work all hours. In recent studies by Deloitte and career-monitoring website Comparably, younger workers placed “work-life balance” above career progression. Millennials want to get home on time to raise their kids — or at least play some Nintendo.

During the economic crisis, any employer who got asked about yoga could simply titter and bin the jobseeker’s CV. There was always a more desperate candidate. But now that’s changing: with the global economy growing at its fastest rate since 2011, qualified jobseekers are scarce. Finally, workers can make demands. IG Metall, Germany’s biggest trade union, just struck a deal allowing its members to work 28-hour weeks for up to two years, typically when they have small children. Childcare clearly isn’t just a German women’s issue any more: most IG Metall members are men.

True, Germany is currently something of a workers’ paradise. But if other national economies keep growing, working hours will soon move up the agenda there too. During booms, more people want to trade money for time.

The post-2008 crisis has finally ended. Average wages are now above pre-crisis levels in all developed countries except the UK and Greece. The eurozone’s jobless rate is the lowest and US wage growth the fastest since 2009.

The average worker in the developed world now earns more than ever before. More than that, she has an inherited sense of security that previous generations lacked. Picture somebody born in a western country in 1980. Her grandfather, born about 1930, worked long hours in a factory. Her father, born 1955, worked slightly shorter hours in an office. Now she’s the third generation to make her career after the second world war, which means above mere subsistence level. She can also probably expect an inheritance. In short, though precariousness remains, today’s average worker has enough money to cope. What she lacks in this age of helicopter parenting and constant work messages is time.

Work-life balance is typically discussed as a personal issue. Self-help gurus tend to recommend life hacks: quit Facebook, ignore most emails, install a meditation app, etc. Yet, as Anne-Marie Slaughter argues in her book Unfinished Business, it’s not the individual worker who needs to change. It’s the system.

Here, Germany has been the quiet trendsetter. In 1960, the average West German employee’s working year was 2,163 hours. Today it’s 1,363 hours, the lowest of all developed countries. And when Germans go home in mid-afternoon, lots of them are genuinely free. Many leading German companies — forced by tight job markets to keep workers happy — limit after-work emails. Daimler even automatically erases emails to employees who are on holiday.

Now IG Metall has taken another step towards what Germans call die Work-Life-Balance. Admittedly, IG Metall’s members are unusually well placed to make demands. The German metals industry is just about the most booming sector in Europe’s most booming country. Moreover, this month’s deal covers the particularly boomy state of Baden-Württemberg. But IG Metall’s deals tend to set benchmarks for the German economy.

Other traditionally workaholic countries are also trying to ease off. South Korea, China and Thailand have already limited school homework, though clearly not enough: many Chinese parents are rebelling against having to spend every evening doing their kids’ trigonometry assignments. Now South Korea’s government wants to cut the country’s average annual working hours to less than 1,800, from 2,069 in 2016 — the most for any high-income country ranked by the OECD. So far, South Korea’s plan remains mostly talk (as does Japan’s promised Hatarakikata kaikaku, or “work-style reform”) but any government that improves Korean lives should win millennial votes.

Only the US has found a lasting way to make well-off employees work all hours into old age: take away their healthcare insurance if they stop. Yet even there, things may change. Amazon is piloting technical teams that work 30-hour weeks for the same benefits and three-quarters the pay of 40-hour employees. Such schemes will become common if the economy keeps growing.

Shorter hours won’t help the poorest-paid workers, who can’t afford to work less, or elite workers, who generally love their work and can hire help for household tasks. But for the broad middle in rich countries, a new working life is emerging. The basic workweek will shorten, and individual workers will scale down when they have kids or aged parents to look after. By contrast, in calmer phases of life, they will work more: IG Metall’s deal makes it easier for some employees to scale up from the standard 35 hours to 40. Such flexibility should eventually kill off the “mommy track”, which punishes a woman all through her 45-year career for the few years she spends child-rearing.

The future of work could look like Germany: short workdays, high productivity and a booming yoga sector.

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