When buzzing through a sped-up world where there are always battles to be won and emails to be answered, learning to slow down in the workplace is imperative to both our productivity and happiness. In this excerpt from Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, he writes about the benefits of flexible hours and the importance of downtime.
There was a time, not so long ago, when mankind looked forward to a new Age of Leisure. Machines promised to liberate everyone from the drudgery of work. Sure, we might have put in the odd shift at the office or factory, monitoring screens, twiddling dials, signing invoices, but the rest of the day would be spent hanging out and having fun. With so much free time on our hands, words like “hurry” and “haste” would eventually fall out of the language.
Benjamin Franklin was among the first to envision a world devoted to rest and relaxation. Inspired by the technological breakthroughs of the latter 1700s, he predicted that man would soon work no more than four hours a week. The 19th century made that prophecy look foolishly naive. In the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, men, women and even children toiled for 15 hours a day. Yet at the end of the 19th century, the Age of Leisure popped up once again on the cultural radar. George Bernard Shaw predicted that we would work two hours a day by 2000.
The dream of limitless leisure persisted through the 20th century. Dazzled by the magical promise of technology, the man in the street dreamed of a life spent lounging by the pool, waited on by robots that not only mixed a mean martini but also kept the economy ticking over nicely. In 1956, Richard Nixon told Americans to prepare for a four-day workweek in the “not too distant future.” A decade later, a US Senate subcommittee heard that by 2000 Americans would be working as little as 14 hours per week. Even in the 1980s, some predicted that robotics and computers would give us all more free time than we would know what to do with.
Could they have been more wrong? If we can be sure about anything in the 21st century, it is that reports of the death of work have been greatly exaggerated. Today, the Age of Leisure looks as feasible as the paperless office. Most of us are more likely to put in a 14-hour day than a 14-hour week. Work devours the bulk of our waking hours. Everything else in life—family and friends, sex and sleep, hobbies and holidays—is forced to bend around the almighty work schedule.
In the industrialized world, the average number of hours worked began a steady decline in the middle of the 1800s, when six-day weeks were the norm. But over the past 20 years, two rival trends have taken hold.
While Americans work as much as they did in 1980, Europeans work less. By some estimates, the average American now puts in 350 hours more on the job per year than his European counterpart. In 1997, the US supplanted Japan as the industrialized country with the longest working hours. By comparison, Europe looks like a slacker’s paradise. Yet even there the picture is mixed. To keep up with the fast-paced, round-the-clock global economy, many Europeans have learned to work more like Americans.
Behind the statistical averages, the grim truth is that the millions of people are actually working longer and harder than they want to, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. One in four Canadians now racks up more than 50 hours a week on the job, compared to one in ten in 1991. By 2002, one in five thirtysomething Britons was working at least 60 hours a week. And that’s before one adds in the long hours we spend commuting.
Whatever happened to the Age of Leisure? Why are so many of us still working so hard?
Beyond the great productivity debate lies what may be the most important question at all: What is life for? Most people would agree that work is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies and rest.
For the Slow movement, the workplace is a key battlefront. When the job gobbles up so many hours, the time left over for everything else gets squeezed. Even the simple things—taking the kids to school, eating supper, chatting to friends—become a race against the clock. A surefire way to slow down is to work less. And that is exactly what millions of people around the world are seeking to do.
Everywhere, and especially in the long-hours economies, polls show a yearning to spend less time on the job. In a recent international survey by economists at Warwick University and Dartmouth College, 70 percent of people in 27 countries said they wanted a better work-life balance. In the US, the backlash against workaholism is gathering steam. More and more blue-chip firms, from Starbucks to Walmart, face lawsuits from staff allegedly forced to put in unpaid overtime. Americans are snapping up books that show how a more leisurely approach to work, and to life in general, can bring happiness and success. Recent titles include The Lazy Way to Success, The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success and The Importance of Being Lazy. In 2003, US campaigners for shorter working hours held the first national Take Back Your Time Day on October 24, the date when, according to some estimates, Americans have worked as much as Europeans do in a year.
Continental Europe has moved furthest down the road to cutting work hours. The average German, for instance, now spends 15 percent less time on the job than in 1980. Many economists reject the claim that working less creates more jobs by spreading the work around. But everyone agrees that trimming work hours generates more time for leisure, traditionally a higher priority among continental Europeans. In 1993, the EU laid down a maximum workweek of 48 hours with workers given the right to work longer if they wish. At the end of the decade, France took the boldest step so far to put work in its place by cutting the workweek to 35 hours.