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Work time reduction or work time increase: What is the degrowth pathway?

By: Markus Peter Sommersguter


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Many degrowth advocates conceive work time reduction (WTR) as an imperative for a socio-ecological transformation (SET). However, not all growth critics are convinced that work time can or must be decreased in a degrowth scenario. Some are highly sceptical and argue for more work in a degrowth society. This essay thus concentrates on the disputed topic of work time reduction in degrowth literature. I provide arguments both for a decrease and increase of work, which are subsequently reevaluated and synthesized concerning the fundamental ideas of degrowth. I start by arguing why changing work is a crucial lever for a socio-ecological transformation.


For clarification, I consider work as comprising human work (i.e. paid work in the labour market and unpaid work like household chores, caring, etc.) and work performed by nature (e.g. ecosystem functions, natural processes like the production of crops, etc.). However, in the following discussion on work time, only paid work is considered.

Why work matters in and for the socio-ecological transformation

First, work is a central category for the economic process. Labour is required in the production process (amidst capital and natural resources), in which resources are transformed into goods and services.


Second, work is a central institution that molds the daily lives of people. Work structures lives and partially explains the quality of living as it takes up a huge share of people´s time. In contemporary nation-states, employment- one special form of work- is necessitated and hence determines the quality of life and the material standard of people. Furthermore, work provides identity and sometimes a criterion of social inclusion.


Third, work mediates the socio-economic and ecological spheres. Labour and production are decisive for ecological impacts. Work is hence an essential factor concerning the social metabolism (i.e. the flows of energy and matter between nature and society/economy). 


Accordingly, work impacts and is impacted by the ecological, economic, and social realms. A look at work and its proposed changes might hence allow a glimpse of the future societal organization as well as humans' social relations with the economy and the environment.  

Work Time Reduction: a supposed imperative for genuine sustainability

WTR is considered a promising lever for sustainable change. WTR is connected to the idea of work-sharing. The basic idea is that it allows for a high rate of employment (i.e. full employment) even in a non-growing or shrinking economy as high productivity levels and further increases in productivity require shorter working hours to maintain unemployment low. Additionally, environmental pressures are significantly connected to work hours. Accordingly, WTR is meant to reduce human impact on the environment as it might decrease output. WTR could also enable work-sharing for unpaid work between men and women as it increases the non-wage-labour capacities of both genders. It could also foster a shift to autoproduction and thus create resilient communities that are independent of long global value chains. WTR is also meant to boost the well-being of people as it promotes time for personal recreation. However, there are also counter arguments against WTR.

Why more work might have to be accomplished by humans

WTR is conceptualised based on high productivity levels that have been experienced in the past. These are in part enabled by the cheap supply of fossil fuels. By spending 1 unit of energy, fossil fuels provided up to 50 energy units. This means the energy return on investment (EROI) is 50:1. By contrast, renewable energy has an EROI between 10:1 and 20:1. Shifting to renewable energy hence decreases the useful energy for the economic process. Less useful energy will ultimately translate into a decrease in productivity. This means more human work might be necessary for satisfying human needs.


Sorman and Giampietro argue along this line that developed countries cannot both decarbonize their economies and reduce work time because of the economic and organizational structure of those countries. This structure has been inflated as growth was accompanied by perpetual new problems which needed more resources to solve or embank them. Thus, large energy-consuming sectors relevant for its functioning have been instituted (e.g. government and service sectors). According to the authors, this organizational apparatus is to be maintained to solve today's and future challenges, such as migration and safety issues. However, renewable energy provides less useful energy in the energy-producing sectors, so more work has to be spent to provide the energy requirements of these blown-up economies.


Additionally, Spash argues in favour of an appreciation of nature for its “otherness” and therefore a minimization of the environmental impacts of humans by abstaining from the application of ever more technologies. For, as a matter of fact, every technology intervenes in ecologies. If technological applications are limited, productivity might decline which might lead to higher work shares for humans. 


Moreover, some argue high productivity levels as detrimental per se; for high productivity is linked to the exploitation of natural resources, environmental crisis, overproduction, and the exploitation of labour.  


The degrowth literature hence consists of two antithetical positions concerning work time changes in a degrowth scenario. However, this work time debate misses some crucial points.

Missing parcels in the debate

The above arguments relate to current conditions only. However, conditions will necessarily change during a degrowth-guided transformation. In the following, I present the most relevant points for this discussion: (organizational) simplicity, sufficiency and productivity declines.


The first point I want to make pertains to the organizational structure. Sorman and Giampietro deem it necessary to maintain the ballooned organizational systems of western economies in order to solve, for instance, the problem of climate-related migration. However, degrowth describes a pathway towards simplicity. Therefore, the organizational structure could probably get leaner as it becomes simplified. For instance, if we radically limit global warming and promote equality globally as proposed by degrowth proponents, migration might be limited. What is more, technologies are creating many side effects which need solutions. These might be curbed in a degrowth scenario. Consequently, the ballooned organizational apparatus can probably be reduced, too. 


Another factor that must be acknowledged is that degrowth revolves around the idea of sufficiency. This means that in a degrowth world everyone lives with decent material standards but not in excessive luxury. Hence, consumption is curbed. And if we consume less, we can produce less and thus we require less labour. This might amplify the possibility to curb the organizational apparatus as fewer (redundant) goods (as well as technologies to produce them) create fewer issues and hence require less organizational expenditure.


On the other hand, the WTR proposal builds upon the assumption of high productivity levels which were to a big part enabled by fossil fuels. Shifting to renewables decreases the useful energy. This, in combination with ethical considerations (e.g. appreciation of nature, the creation of decent work) might decrease productivity substantially, which means more labour is required if everything else stays equal. 


It remains unclear whether or not a lean organizational structure and sufficiency in consumption can compensate for lower productivity levels and thus bring work time requirements down. Accordingly, the concept of WTR is disputed.


In conclusion, this piece argued that the work issue is a promising lever in and for a socio-ecological transformation. The debate on work time within degrowth, however, is disputed. I provided arguments for a decrease and increase of work in a degrowth scenario. Subsequently, I complemented the debate with three mechanisms that are predominantly neglected, i.e. simplicity, sufficiency, and productivity declines. These are mechanisms that must be incorporated in the investigation of future work time trajectories. Eventually, as work time trajecotries remain unclear, this article argued against the glib advocacy of WTR. It can hence be understood as a critique of the ill-considered promotion of a potentially unfeasible concept that is WTR.

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Markus Peter Sommersguter

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