Op-ed: Berkeley moves ahead on flexible work time

Measure Q, the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative, won overwhelmingly last November, with over 78% voting yes.

This was an advisory initiative, and now the city has begun the process of passing the law that it called for. On Tuesday, January 27, the City Council referred this issue to the Commission on Labor.

This sort of law is urgently needed to help parents and other caregivers get the flexible and predictable working arrangements that make it easier for them to balance the demands of work and family.

I believe it also has larger benefits, and this opinion piece will look at effects of flexible work time that do not seem as urgent now but that could be very important over the coming century.

Can’t buy happiness

The United States has already reached the point where more income does not increase the average person’s happiness.

Fig1_IncomeHappiness2

Beginning in 1990, the World Values Survey began asking people in many nations how happy they are. This graph uses the results of a recent survey, and it compares per capita GDP at that time with self-reported happiness. You can see that happiness increases as per capita GDP increases in low-income countries but stops increasing after nations reach per capita GDP significantly lower than ours.

This result is not surprising. In poor countries, it makes sense that people will become happier as their incomes increase and they can afford more of the necessities and basic comforts of life. But once you have the basics of economic comfort, such as decent housing, health care, and education, and you also have enjoyable luxuries, such as music, books, and travel, consuming even more does not increase happiness significantly, though it does bring significant environmental costs.

Of course, there are many poor and moderate-income people in the United States who do need more income, but there are also many people who would be happier with a better work-life balance rather than more income.

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Work-life balance

The most obvious benefit of better work-life balance is more family time. We adopted the standard 40-hour week in 1938, when most families had stay-at-home mothers. Today, most families with children do not have a stay-at-home parent, and surveys show that in 90% of these families, parents say it is hard to balance their work and family obligations.

There are also other benefits of work-life balance. Studies of happiness have found that, after people are economically comfortable and secure, satisfaction with life is likely to increase not because of higher income but instead because of:

  • Social connections with family and friends
  • Freedom to choose your own actions
  • Creative activity
  • Ability to care for yourself

These things require time. This sort of law can let each person choose the balance of free time and income that he or she thinks will provide a good life.

Work time and environment

Shorter work time benefits the environment. If people choose to work less and consume less, then they will also pollute less.

A study named “Hours of Work and the Ecological Footprint of Nations” did extensive international comparisons and, after correcting statistically for other variables, found that reducing work hours by a given amount reduces ecological footprint by an even larger amount. For example, reducing work hours by 10% reduces ecological footprint by more than 10%. The reason is that free time lets people consume in less damaging ways – for example, by cooking from fresh ingredients rather than eating processed and frozen foods.

In the short run, there will be a small environmental benefit to flexible work hours, since most people cannot afford to reduce their hours by very much. In the long run, there could be a very large environmental benefit.

This graph shows that work hours in the United States declined from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the depression but stopped declining after World War II. If they had continued to decline at their historic rate, our ecological footprint would be more than 25% smaller than it is.

Fig2_USWorkHours2

The next graph shows that work hours are still declining in Europe. Germany, for example, had much longer hours than the United States in 1950 but has much shorter hours now; despite the popular impression of the two countries, Germany’s work hours are shorter than France’s. If American work hours were as short as they are in the Netherlands, Germany, or Norway, our ecological footprint would be more than 20% smaller than it is.

Fig3_WorkTimeUSFranceGermany2

If we could get back on the trajectory of gradually working shorter hours over the years and decades, it would make a major contribution to dealing with global warming and other ecological challenges over the course of the twenty-first century. This should be possible, since the United States did it during most of our history and western Europe is still doing it.

I hope Berkeley that can take the lead and that California can ultimately pass a similar law. Vermont has already passed this sort of law, and President Obama has adopted this policy for Federal employees, so it certainly is mainstream enough to become a state law here.

By emphasizing the larger long-term benefits of the law, we in Berkeley can make an important contribution to the national discussion of policies that are needed to control global warming and to improve the quality of life.

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Charles Siegel is the author of 'The Politics of Simple Living' and the organizer of the Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative, which was Measure Q on last November’s ballot. (See: http://www.flexibleworktime.com/)