Today, work is regarded as something sacred
This is a cultural article which is part of Then24’s opinion journalism.
In Then24 Kultur’s series “The unmentionables”, we have asked some writers to highlight the issues that are missing in this year’s election campaign. When all the politicians are running in the same direction, we want to turn the light on everything else. The issues and constituencies no one is talking about. The unmentionables.
First up is Linn Spross, writer and care worker, who brings to life the issue of shorter working hours
Few things are like that depressing as happiness research. Think that the grand, wonderful, miraculous in being human and being alive should be reduced to how much joy you feel from variable A on a scale of one to ten.
Barely a year ago, Dagens Nyheter hit the headlines that too much free time actually makes people unhappy. A semi-old news that got a new spread on social media just in time for the holidays this year. Happiness researchers had come to the conclusion that two hours of free time a day is enough, then happiness hit the ceiling and then leveled off and went down at five hours.
Perhaps it could be too nice for the stressed modern person to know that two hours was good enough, that she didn’t need to dream bigger than that for her own happiness, one of the researchers commented on the result.
In order to turn the tide, a pamphlet was published propagating our need for work, illustrated with a restless man pacing to and fro in an empty room, smoking three cigarettes at the same time.
The same message wanted The Swedish Employers’ Association spread to the people in the mid-1970s. As always, employers were stubbornly opposed to shorter working hours, and were now concerned that the six-hour work day seemed to be gaining both political ground and public opinion.
In order to turn the tide, a pamphlet was published propagating our need for work, illustrated with a restless man pacing to and fro in an empty room, smoking three cigarettes at the same time. Visibly tormented by the boredom that free time entails.
We know today that there were no six-hour working days. The issue was hot for a short period in the 1970s, but quickly cooled. An economic crisis and a shift to the right in politics were effective cooling agents. Short-time work is a political issue that has been moribund for decades.
Ahead of the election this autumn, it’s dead quiet, as if there was a clarion call from one or another youth association on the left. Even so, the issue refuses to take its last breath. Municipal members showed this at their convention last summer, when they went against their leadership and voted to push for a six-hour work day.
As long as we work for wages, and thus sell our time as labor power, the issue will burn, albeit temporarily on a low flame. Because time and what we do with it is so central to our lives.
The first working hours law came in 1919, in the face of the threat of a revolution from the Swedish working masses. Despite the fact that employers believed that the law would put business in shackles, the politicians chose to try to appease the workers. That a working hours law could perhaps make them believe in “the path of peaceful progress”, as they put it in a government investigation.
The first working hours law applied to eight hours of work, six days a week. During the 20th century, the 48-hour work week was gradually shortened to 40 hours, and holidays were extended from none at all to five weeks.
It used to be called for productive social policy, a concept coined by the Social Democrat Gunnar Myrdal. In this lay that it was wrong to see only the cost of various social reforms, since they could just as well be an investment.
In this way, the argument for shortening working hours came to be made: more free time gave more rested workers, and it went without saying that a better rested worker could work harder, which gave increased productivity that benefited the whole society.
Somewhere in the 20th century, this idea disappeared and social reforms in general and shorter working hours in particular came to be seen as a cost, with economic growth dictating whether politics could afford the reforms or not. The ideological space for shorter working hours began to shrink more and more.
First came the question of more pay or more free time, it being understood that it is not possible to get both. Today, the issue of shortening working hours is not only against other (im)possible reforms, but against existing welfare.
this was for a long time the prevailing view of the broad layers of the labor movement: that the fruits of labor should accrue to those who worked, that it was obviously morally right to demand both more pay and more leisure time.
The latest state the working time inquiry, which came twenty years ago, said that a six-hour working day would mean that the standard of living would fall. Something like that, it was decided, no politician could either want, dare or be able to do.
As usual in the context of working hours, the reasoning was based more on feeling than on facts. Namely, it is very difficult to isolate working time as a single variable from the economy, and thus very difficult to set forecasts for its effects. Therefore, the question has been about ideology, about what should cost and for whom.
It has been a long time since shorter working hours were seen as a natural consequence of increased economic prosperity. But for a long time this was the prevailing view of the broad layers of the labor movement: that the fruits of labor should accrue to those who worked, that it was obviously morally right to demand both more pay and more leisure time. Nothing strange in demanding an increased portion of the cake, because those who worked had baked it. Employers would pay the cost of an increased price of labor.
To advocate for shorter working hours just for the simple reason that it is wonderful to have more free time, that you want to have time to spend on what you want, for your friends, your family, car bingo, dog shows, apple picking, scrolling even more on your mobile or sleeping dinner is basically unmentionable
Somewhere this disappeared thought completely out of politics: that those who work have an interest that is in conflict with those who buy this work. Somewhere, most people agreed that whatever favors economic growth is obviously good, and thus the side that bought labor won. They could always say that they had the best interests of business in mind.
To advocate for shorter working hours just for the simple reason that it is wonderful to have more free time, that you want to have time to spend on what you want, for your friends, your family, car bingo, dog shows, apple picking, scrolling even more on your mobile or sleeping dinner is basically unmentionable. Everyone wants to stand up because it works hard and contributes. From right to left, the dutiful care worker who struggles, the self-employed person who never takes a holiday are celebrated.
Working, in whatever form it may be, whether it is writing propaganda for the fossil lobby, participating in deforestation, creating software for online casinos or cleaning hospitals, changing diapers and designing schools, is unequivocally good. The person who does not work must have a damn good reason for it, a clear diagnosis, be so broken as a person that there is no suspicion whatsoever that he might be a little fit for work but obscures the whole thing in order to take part in things that others have produced in the sweat of his brow. No one cares about lazy worms and radicals. Despite this, I am convinced that there is a little lazy worm living in all of us.
Technology historian Lewis Mumford has written that it was not the steam engine, but the clock, which was the most important invention of the industrial revolution. It enabled work to be measured and thus become a commodity that could be bought and sold. The watch embodied a work ethic: that time was money.
Somewhere along the line we have all internalized dividing our lives into units of time, giving it a value and a price in money, accepting to reduce this amazing, skyrocketing and highly finite life into measurable little units that we sell.
A reduction in working hours may not cure all of life’s problems. But having more time on your own, free to dispose as you wish, to free and unlock aspects of life that were previously locked to work, may actually make people happier. Future happiness researchers will have to say that in their surveys.