Canadians are working harder and enjoying life less. Slavish devotion to consumerism has put many on a treadmill while millions are unemployed or underemployed.
While some of Canada’s working poor must work long hours just to make ends meet, others are working long and hard to buy things they don’t really need. Advertising has sold us on the idea that we need to purchase and consume goods to fulfill our lives. Canadians work long hours to buy the stuff of the good life, often at the price of their own health. Ironically, the price of the good life is the collapse of personal relationships, unhappiness, shortened lives due to stress, and lack of time to do the things they want.
Anders Hayden has come up with the modest solution to this problem in his book, Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet. He suggests a reduction in work time so that jobs may be created. Employees would take a cut in hours instead of an increase in pay, or, they would voluntarily take unpaid days off.
It’s not a novel solution. In the 1930s the Kellogg Factory in Battle Creek, Michigan (the people who make breakfast cereal) implemented work time reduction. The result of reduction in the work day to 6 hours was that more people were employed. This was an innovation at a time when the 60 hour work-week was not unusual.
The shorter work week was not only a response to the depression, but an alternative vision of progress. Less time on the job meant time for reading, gardening, amateur sports, canning, going to parks, thinking, making love, talking to neighbours, taking care of children and the elderly, and getting involved in political and community life. Shorter work days allowed employees time to keep up with skills such as music, art, writing and history. Leisure was an active pursuit.
But workers became restless. A shift in attitude took place after World War Two with growing consumerism. One worker said that he “learned that 6 hours was not enough”. They learned that the simple life is not fulfilling and that longer work hours brought the things that advertising said they needed. What were once luxuries became necessities.
Many employees would like to work less but it’s not easy. A reduction in work time often results in a loss of benefits. It’s not easy for Employers, either. Payroll costs are fixed for each employee and an increase in the number of employees to do the same amount of work means increased costs. That’s why employers prefer to lay workers off and pay overtime to remaining employees. And many employees are happy to oblige.
Governments have tried to implement work reduction programs by reducing payroll costs. In 1996, the NDP Government of British Columbia introduced measures to promote shorter work hours in the forestry sector. The government provided up to $3,500 annually to offset employee costs with the goal of creating 3,000 jobs.
Unions have bargained for shorter hours. During the strike at the Fletcher Challenge Canada mill in 1997, the union wanted to use banked overtime as time off. According to union researcher Julie White, the employer wanted to promote overtime with the attendant job loss. Unions have their problems as well. Many union workers prefer to work overtime, even if it means that others don’t work. The NDP Government of Ontario met fierce union resistance when they tried to introduce unpaid days off (called Rae Days) for public employees with incomes over $30,000. In retrospect, some employees who were forced to take days off came to enjoy them. With the current Ontario government attempting to increase the length of work week, many are now reflecting back on the “good old days”.
Conspicuous consumption has become part of our culture. Workaholism is now a respectable addiction. You can binge on work all you want and actually feel virtuous. When Oscar Wilde said “work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do”, he was reflecting on an era long past. Now, productive leisure time is a luxury of the idle rich, or, a necessity of the destitute poor, but beyond the grasp of most.