By Ben Lennon
| Americans work. A lot. And we have for a long time. The 40-hour workweek was implemented during the Great Depression, and at the time it represented a cut in average hours worked, intending to be used as a job creation tool. Back then, productivity was increasing, and thus a cut in hours was viewed as acceptable. In fact, some people thought productivity, along with rapid technological advancements, would increase to the point where we would work only two days a week, and have more leisure time than we knew what to do with.
Fast forward to today and it turns out these thinkers were fairly, if not completely, wrong. Productivity has increased, thanks in part to incredible technological advances. However, the 40 hour work week is still the standard, and doesn’t look like it’s going to be changing. If the idea is brought up, the same arguments are always lobbied against it: more work means more productivity. However, is this true? Do we stand to lose in productivity if we cut back on hours? That would make sense, and yet many studies have shown that this isn’t the case. In the U.S., last year saw an increase in productivity of 1.4%, but this came with an increase in hours worked of 3.2%.
It might be time to look abroad for other examples of how this might work. For example, let’s look at the Netherlands. They went through a shift in the 1990s and now have a 29 hour work week – the shortest of any industrialized world. Somehow this hasn’t led to a national disaster. In fact, the Dutch are just as productive as American workers. Granted, GDP in the Netherlands has been all over the place, but recently the argument has been promoted that constant growth is not necessarily a good thing. Further, worker morale in the Netherlands has remained high while it has shrunk in the U.S. Further, all Dutch workers are entitled to benefits such as paid vacation, maternity leave, and paternity leave. With that sort of work-life balance, and an increasingly standard four-day work week, it’s no wonder the Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the happiest nations on Earth. While increased leisure time, meaning more time to spend with your family, or pursue a hobby, or simply relax, is a different definition of prosperity than we’re used to, it could very well be one step towards a new, more sustainable definition of prosperity for the future.