Op-ed: Berkeley’s new right-to-request law is a model that can create a sustainable future

Berkeley’s new “right-to-request law” allows employees to request part-time work, flexible work hours, predictable work hours, and flexible working arrangements.

On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council passed what is called a “right-to-request law.” This law allows employees to request part-time work, flexible work hours, predictable work hours, and flexible working arrangements (such as telecommuting). Employers can refuse the request if they provide a business reason for refusing.

The United Kingdom has had a similar law since 2002, and it has been very successful, with employers granting the vast majority of requests. Vermont and San Francisco passed similar laws in 2013. In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving federal employees the right to request.

This law follows up on Measure Q on Berkeley’s 2014 ballot, which called on Berkeley to pass a right-to-request law and was supported by more than 78% of the voters.

Benefits Families and the Environment

I was the proponent of this initiative. I decided to make the effort to get this issue before voters because I have considered the choice of work time a key economic issue for a long time – ever since people began talking about the limits of growth during the 1970s. Let me explain why I consider it so important.

Most right-to-request laws emphasize the benefit to families. Our 40-hour work week dates back to 1938, a time when families were expected to have stay-at-home mothers. But today, 63% of all families with children do not have a stay-at-home parent, and 90% of the parents in these families say there is a conflict between their work and family obligations. Clearly, today’s parents need more flexibility than father needed eight decades ago.

The Measure Q campaign also emphasized benefits to the environment. Flexible work time gives people the option of downshifting economically – choosing to have more time instead of more stuff. If people choose to work less and consume less, they will also pollute less.

I call the choice of work time the most important environmental issue that most people don’t realize is an environmental issue.

What Is the Economy For?

Choice of work time raises a fundamental economic question: What is the economy for?

We can start looking for the answer in the first chapter of a standard economics textbook, where they say that the goal of the economy is to produce the goods and services that people want. Today, we believe we must produce more to create jobs, whether or not people want the products. By contrast, choice of work time would let people choose the balance of consumption and leisure that they actually want.

Currently, we try to create more and more jobs, rather than creating the most satisfying combination of work and leisure, because we have not thought about how to deal with increasing productivity. New technology lets workers produce more per hour, eliminating jobs as machines replace people. As you can see in the graph, the average American worker produced about ten times as much per hour in 2000 as in 1900.

We can make up for the jobs lost to technology by:

  • Producing and Consuming More: For example, if productivity increases 2% annually, we can produce 2% more each year.
  • Working Less: For example, if productivity increases 2% annually, we can work about 2% less each year.
  • A Combination of Both: For example, if productivity increases 2% annually, we can produce 1% more and work about 1% less each year.

During most of our history, we did a combination of both. In 1840, the standard work week was 72 hours. As you can see in the graph below, it declined fairly steadily, then dipped during the Great Depression and rose again during World War II.

But, as you can also see, standard work hours stopped declining during the post-war period. Despite the immense changes in the American family and the American economy, we still have the same 40-hour week that was established eight decades ago.

Because work hours are not declining, we have only one way to avoid losing jobs to productivity growth: producing and consuming more – we need rapid economic growth, whether we want it or not, just to avoid unemployment.

By contrast, work hours have been getting shorter in western Europe. The following graph shows that work hours in Germany and France have declined dramatically since 1950, while America’s have stagnated.

People often claim that France shows that shorter work hours hurt a country’s economy, but (as you can see in the graph) work hours have declined more quickly in Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, than in France. In fact, the countries with the world’s shortest work hours are the prosperous economies of northern Europe: the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark.

Economic Growth and Happiness

We have reached a point where our single-minded focus on growth is no longer making us happier. The following graph shows the relation between per capita GDP and self-reported happiness in different countries. You can see that, in very poor countries, happiness increases with greater output. But after countries reach about half the per capita GDP of the United States, there is no longer a correlation between greater output and greater happiness.

The Netherlands has the shortest work hours in the world – 80% as much as the United States. Their short hours are largely the result of people choosing part-time work. The Netherlands has a law guaranteeing the right to choose part-time work. Because of this law and of Dutch culture, 48.5% of Dutch workers were part-time in 2010, and the percentage continues to increase.

Rudd Lubbers, Dutch Prime Minister when this law was passed, has said:

“The Dutch are not aiming to maximize gross national product per capita. Rather, we are seeking to attain a high quality of life…. Thus, while the Dutch economy is very efficient per working hour, the number of working hours per citizen is rather limited. … We like it that way. Needless to say, there is more room for all those important aspects of our lives that are not part of our jobs, for which we are not paid and for which there is never enough time.”

Because they have a choice of work time, Dutch workers can choose the number of hours that they believe will give them the most satisfying lives.

Now, we have gotten the real answer to the question, “What is the economy for?” The economy should not promote growth for the sake of growth. It should not create jobs for the sake of creating jobs. Its goal should be to give people the best possible quality of life – and that means letting people choose the balance of work and leisure that gives them the most satisfaction.

A Sustainable Future

At some point, the world is going to have to deal with consumerism and growth in order to avoid an ecological crisis. According to the studies I have seen, it is possible to control global warming without slowing the world’s economic growth during the first half of this century. But if we project the world’s recent economic growth into the more remote future, we find that:

  • In the 2080s, the entire world will have the per capita GDP that the United States has now.
  • In the 2120s, the entire world will have double the per capita GDP that the United States has now.
  • And so on. You can continue the projection yourself by imagining per capita GDP doubling every four decades.

It is hard to predict when, because the timing depends on what new technologies are developed, but this projection makes it clear that the world economy will overwhelm the earth’s ability to provide resources and to absorb pollution at some point, if we continue business as usual.

Before that point comes, we need to start taking some of our productivity gains in the form of more free time, as they do in Europe, rather than taking them all in the form of more production and consumption, as we do now in the United States.

If we do it wrong, we will face ecological crisis. But if we do it right, we will discover that we can be happier after our economy shifts gears – after we stop aiming at maximum production and consumption, and start aiming at the best possible quality of life.

Charles Siegel was the proponent of Measure Q and is the author of The Politics of Simple Living: Why Our Economy Is Making Life Worse and How We Can Make It Better