How a four-day working week and ‘quiet quitting’ can help tackle climate change
- In Asia, the ethic of hard work has metastasised into mental and environmental issues, and shorter working hours will require a massive mindset change
- As the rest of the world has shown, working fewer hours brings happiness and productivity, boosts consumption, and is part of the business solution to climate change
In Japan, amid official encouragement, companies such as Hitachi are introducing a four-day week while others, like Panasonic, plan to do the same. But the option of a four-day week does not always guarantee a reduction in working hours and, in some cases, can mean a pay cut.
The concept tends to be viewed from the perspective of individual well-being and corporate human resources – and not so much as an environmental necessity or a path to a more sustainable economy. Its acceptance, accordingly, is linked to socio-economic conditions.
The 2007 study Working Time Around the World noted that “economic growth matters in reducing working hours until a certain point beyond which the impact of income on working hours becomes unclear and other factors must be playing a role”.
While the benefits of a shorter working week but longer work day is debatable, it is clearly difficult for some cultures to let go of a 40-hour working week. This is especially so in the parts of Asia where the work ethic is ingrained.
The World Bank noted that, “China’s growth based on resource-intensive manufacturing, exports and low-paid labour has largely reached its limits and has led to economic, social, and environmental imbalances. Reducing these imbalances requires shifts in the structure of the economy.”
President Xi Jinping recognises this. “The carrying capacities of our resources and environment have reached a limit, the production function formula of the past is no longer sustainable,” he wrote in an essay last year on “new development”.
Instead, China should focus on “improving the quality and returns of economic growth, to promoting sustained and healthy economic development, and to pursuing genuine rather than inflated GDP growth and achieving high-quality, efficient, and sustainable development,” he wrote.
But China’s ministry of human resources does not appear to agree, saying last year that there was “no realistic basis” for shortening working hours, after lawmakers proposed a 4.5-day working week.
Will economies run out of steam because people spend less time working? Ford observed that “leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles”.
The ethic of hard work has metastasised into mental and environmental issues. Shorter working hours will require a massive change in mindset, especially for Asia. But a four-day week and its derivatives is about working fewer hours – not about being less productive. The sooner we realise that, the better.
Samir Nazareth has worked in the development sector and writes on sociopolitical and environmental issues