Working more, working less

It must be the month for coincidences.

A story on NPR this morning describes France’s difficulties with its legislated 35-hour workweek. French President Sarkozy apparently believes that most of his country’s economic problems spring from insufficient time on the job. The story quotes a nurse and single mother, however, who supports the current setup: “It’s nice to have the extra days to spend with my kids,” she says. “I want to raise them right. I didn’t have them so I could give them to someone else to take care of.”

The coincidence lies in how the NPR story pairs nicely with this article, which makes the case for a 21-hour workweek. Under the current assumptions, according to the New Economic Foundation, which authored a study highlighted in the article, “many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things.”

A shorter work week, on the other hand, would create jobs, increase leisure time, and lessen the incessant overconsumption that is modern Western life. This certainly seems more in line with what people say they want – more time with family and friends, less work stress, better quality of life.

You might also say that there’s an interesting socioeconomic parallel here. The French, one of the leaders in the post-industrial work world of the 20th century, who first adopted numerous holidays, shorter working hours, and enhanced worker benefits, are now arguing to reverse that, and to become more…well, American. This just as American thinkers are claiming that the Europeans have the right idea.

It reminds me of the way that the developing world (I think especially of China and India) are frantically acquiring all the trappings of Western consumer culture – more and bigger cars, highways, skyscrapers, consumer electronics – just as some of us in the West are turning from that path. (The bicycle, which is being abandoned by the Chinese even as bike commuting increases in the US, could be a perfect symbol of those disparate arcs.)

The French, to their credit, seem uninterested in making their workweek any longer. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out, especially given the ongoing worldwide economic situation.