Culture, Public Policy and Work

Mariel's picture

In both France and Germany, government legislation to reduce working hours has been used as a policy to help create employment.

But reducing the standard workweek is also a subject where public policy and culture can both influence one another. A cultural tendency to work fewer hours can lead to policies that place caps on the standard work week. And policies that limit work weeks can create a culture in which people expect to work less than they used to.

What do our increasing work hours in North America say about our culture and our society? Working longer hours has become a normal way to “get ahead” and to increase one’s income. Some professions, such as medicine and law, promote a work culture that expects employees to work hours that are far above average. These professions are also compensated highly for their substantial time commitments.

However, working longer hours does not always lead to higher incomes. In a competitive job market, it is often required simply to maintain a position. For many middle income earners, working longer hours has become necessary in order to earn the same income that workers did a few decades ago. And for low-income earners, the lack of a livable minimum wage means that many people have to work two or three jobs in order to meet their basic needs.

Our North American consumer culture also plays a role in our longer work hours. Consumption in our society is highly valued, and the higher income that can be derived from working longer enables people to consume more. This is valued more than leisure time.

In contrast, many Europeans view the forty-plus hour work week and little vacation time found in many North American workplaces to be excessive, and value leisure time more highly than the extra income that can be gained from working longer hours.

Some of our society’s values around work are explored more thoroughly in Chandra’s web features and policy papers on Guaranteed Livable Income.

But for now, I’d like to come back to what has been troubling me since I began researching the idea of a reduced work week. In Canada, instead of producing the same amount and having more leisure time, we are presently working longer and producing much more while earning relatively less than we did a generation ago.

In my final blog, I’ll attempt to tackle these remaining questions: How did this happen? And what can governments and citizens do about it?

Mariel Angus is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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