The clock strikes 21 in Happy Hobbitland



The next time you’re struggling to find the right birthday present for a friend or family member, why don’t you just give the New Economics Foundation a call? Remarkably, these people seem to know the tastes and preferences of 60 million UK inhabitants. Not our old-fashioned “revealed preferences”, the preferences we express through the choices we make every day, but our true preferences, which we are apparently so often confused about ourselves. They know, for example, that deep down inside, we are all unhappy:

“In high-income countries we are consuming … in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us. … Those who can afford to participate are never truly satisfied, however much they consume.”

But the good news is the NEF also knows how to fix this: reduce the length of the working week to 21 Hours. Their report, 21 Hours, makes the case for a reduction in working time over the course of about a decade, in order to achieve three related goals: 

  1. higher levels of happiness

  2. greater equality (between rich and poor, men and women, workless and overworked)

  3. lower carbon emissions.

My greatest problem with 21 Hours is that it mixes lifestyle issues with policy issues throughout. Parts of the report read like a lifestyle guidebook, explaining the benefits of a leisure-centred, non-consumerist lifestyle over a work and consumption centred one. The NEF is, of course, perfectly entitled to make that case. Just as they would be perfectly entitled to try persuading us that rock music is better than hip-hop music, that Italian cuisine is better than Greek cuisine, or that Belgian beer is better than Irish beer.

But does 21 Hours stop there? In a radio debate with Mark Littlewood, co-author Anna Coote was eager to emphasise that the aim was not to force this proposal on everybody. The report itself makes a similar point:

“Anyone can disagree and many will do things differently. … Let’s be clear: there’ll be no time police roaming the call centres and coffee bars.”

But the report also reads:

“At government level, regulations will be required to standardise working hours. The EU Working Time Directive is a step in the right direction but a long way from where we want to go. Current standards will have to be reduced steadily over the coming years. They must be designed to exert a strong influence over the actual hours that people work”,

and explains that there must be

“clear limits to the number of hours worked”.

On a related blog post, Anna Coote also makes clear that

“A lot of people will have to adjust to earning a lot less.”

Call it a time police or not – voluntary persuasion is definitely not what the NEF has in mind.

Before you get too excited about the prospect of a four-day weekend, read the small print. The NEF proposal is not about reducing work. It is about reducing the division of work

“We could grow, prepare, preserve, and cook more of our own food, repair things more often rather than replace them, travel more by foot and bicycle, learn practical skills and make clothes and furnishings. … We could do things with and for each other that we might otherwise have to buy.”

Maybe it’s just the parochialism of somebody whose thinking is constricted by Old Economics, but to me, this sounds a good deal like my grandmother’s anecdotes about the post-war years. Replace the word “could” with “would have no other choice but”, add a few less pleasant tasks like washing clothes by hand, and you’ll see what I mean.

6 thoughts on “The clock strikes 21 in Happy Hobbitland”

  1. Posted 22/02/2010 at 11:02 | Permalink

    Or put it another way, I shall have to work at things I am not very good at (eg mending clothes) instead of working at things the market signals I am better at – eg teaching people. Teaching apparently is not doing something “with and for” somebody else whilst sitting darning my next door neighbour’s socks is. You will also get a different division of work in the household. Unable to benefit from higher education (because of the restriction on the working week) people will work while younger; to maximise household income given the constraints on the working week of individuals, people who currently choose to spend all their time looking after children or the elderly will go out to work.

  2. Posted 22/02/2010 at 11:39 | Permalink

    This sounds like a highly effective poverty creation scheme!

    Actually there is something quite distasteful about this attempt to equate affluence with unhappiness and a lack of fulfilment and poverty with contentment. It is an argument one only hears from those living in affluent societies who know that they will be protected from ever having to face what their idea of a happy life involves.

  3. Posted 22/02/2010 at 11:49 | Permalink

    Yes, how exactly is going back to barter and homegrowing a ‘new’ economic paradigm?

    Great post.

  4. Posted 22/02/2010 at 12:54 | Permalink

    I have come to the conclusion that whether we are ‘happy’ or not is largely a matter of temperament. Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
    Thus if the football team I support wins, I’m pleased (’happy’, if you like) — while if it loses, after all, it’s only a game. I choose not to allow myself to get very upset about it. (It’s no fun winning if you never lose!)

    It all boils down to: get a life!

  5. Posted 25/02/2010 at 12:45 | Permalink

    The “New” Economics Foundation is not at all new in its ideas. To be fair to them, if you like recycling, why not recycle ideas? Sounds like Morris’s News from Nowhere or even Marx’s view of an end to the division of labour under communism.
    Anna Coote’s been round the block a few times herself – I remember her writings on feminism and trade unionism in the early 70s. Well written stuff, though (then as now) outside the realm of practical politics.

  6. Posted 05/03/2010 at 13:10 | Permalink

    Not only is this economically unsustainable but is socially dubious too. Anthropologists say that most of our social attitudes go back to the dawn of man, e.g. Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape. Men in particular often take great pride in their work and thrive in a competitive, aggressive working environment. They are the hunter gatherer stalking the wilderbeest, and long hours are entirely their choice. The best hunters got the best women.

    Unless we want an unemployment rate of 25% or more in Europe this is just a debate.

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