We live in a time of crisis. Consider three interwoven ones.
First, climate change. Every year brings more forest fires and less breathable air, the result of an economic system predicated on burning fossil fuels and working long hours to fuel energy-intensive consumption.
Second, overwhelmed families. Even though people in the Global North live in the richest societies the world has ever known, the majority still find themselves overworked and overwhelmed. Practically every family, especially with young kids, is stressed and strained, struggling to balance the unbalanceable demands of care with no support and work with no flexibility.
Third, millions of poor and working-class people are profoundly unfree in that they have no time for anything but the constant scramble to stay ahead of the bills. In Europe, the average woman in a couple with children works a massive seventy-one hours per week when you include her unpaid care labor. In New York, a single mother on minimum wage would need to labor for an astounding (and impossible) 117 hours every week to meet her basic needs. We live in an epidemic of time poverty, where compulsory overwork defers dreams and crushes aspirations under the relentlessness of Sisyphean toil.
Imagine, for a moment, a different kind of society where the standard job was part-time, but also a good job, offering decent pay and benefits as well as flexibility and career advancement. Public provision of essential services would provide a background of economic security: from health care to childcare, pensions to transit (and, ideally, a basic income as well). With their basic needs met, individuals wouldn’t have to rely on their jobs nearly as much to get by — and working substantially less than forty hours would be something to be desired rather than feared.
The Research on Part-Time Work
Recent scholarly evidence shows that slashing work hours is key to confronting climate change. For example, Jonas Nässén and Jörgen Larsson find that “a decrease in working time by 1% may reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by about 0.7% and 0.8%, respectively.” David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot find that if the United States were to slash its working hours to Western European levels, energy consumption would drop by 20 percent. The most rigorous study to date is probably that of Jared Fitzgerald and colleagues, who performed a longitudinal study on fifty-two countries. They confirmed the results of other studies that more working time leads to more energy consumption, and that this relationship is intensifying over time for both rich and poor countries.
We know that under regular conditions, capitalist economies grow and grow, but so far only by producing more and more emissions. Global emissions have only fallen four times over the last sixty years — 1981, 1992, 2009, and 2020 — precisely when the world was in the throes of economic recession. This is the cold reality of neoliberal capitalism: it forces us to choose between environmental destruction or the social misery of mass unemployment.
Good part-time work offers us a structural escape hatch — a new model to immediately reduce emissions without putting people out of work.
Of course, part-time work isn’t enough by itself. A pro-worker climate agenda must also include national and global agreements on carbon caps, a Green New Deal that unleashes massive state investment fueling decarbonization (for instance, shifting toward clean energy and building new public transit infrastructure), and so on. But good part-time work is a necessary, if insufficient condition, for preventing ecological disaster.
In terms of work-life balance, the evidence is even stronger. The academic literature finds again and again that bringing down work hours alleviates family stress and strain. To cite one of many examples, Rosemary Crompton and Clare Lyonette report in a 2006 paper that in every one of the five countries they studied, “working hours were the most significant predictor of work-life conflict.”
We also know that free time is foundational for individual freedom. To live the life one wants, free time is essential to devise and accomplish any of one’s life goals. One cannot be deeply engaged with family, friends, art, activism, sport, music, education, or any of the variegated projects that animate people’s aspirations if one is always on the clock.
The US vs. Western Europe
For hundreds of years, a vibrant strand of socialism has aspired to build a world with substantial freedom from toil — a world where machines do much of the work so humans don’t have to, freeing us to pursue our aims, develop our capabilities, and flourish in whatever directions we see fit. This is a world where artificial intelligence and robots actually make human life better and easier, rather than ushering in unemployment, fear, and inequality.
But is good part-time work really possible?
For those of us living in North America, part-time employment usually means poorly paid and precarious, with few benefits and even less autonomy. However, there’s nothing inevitable about this. Western European examples show that it’s completely possible to transform crappy part-time jobs into good, secure jobs.
In Denmark, for example, part-time work is usually good work. Whereas the hourly wage gap between full-time and part-time women is more than 20 percent in Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, in Denmark, it is about zero. Danish part-timers also enjoy robust benefits and pensions; a person who works part-time at 75 percent for ten years then full-time for the rest of their career, will end up with a pension worth 98 percent as much as someone who worked full-time their whole career.
A single mother working at the lowest wage (there is no official minimum wage in Denmark, since wages are set through collective bargaining) for thirty hours per week earns €27,600, while the living wage is roughly €15,000. Danish part-timers appear to be very happy with their situation. The percentage of part-time women who say they are “dissatisfied” with their job is only 4 percent, and the percentage of part-time workers who are dissatisfied with their life as a whole is just 0.4 percent.
The Netherlands is another illuminating example. It is the world’s first so-called “part-time economy,” with the highest proportion of part-time jobs in the world. Amazingly, close to 50 percent of the entire labor force works part-time (compared to only 18 percent in the EU27).
Since implementing the Equal Treatment (Working Hours) Act in 1996, it has been illegal for Dutch employers to discriminate between full- and part-time workers in the provision of pay, benefits, holidays, and employment opportunities. Part-time jobs are mostly open-ended contracts, not a precarious form of nonstandard employment — part-timers are not significantly more likely to work unsocial hours like evenings, nights, or weekends — and the country boasts the highest proportion of firms in Europe with part-time positions at high levels of qualification (47 percent). The result is that the gap between hourly part-time and full-time wages is only about 5 percent, with very little part-time work being involuntary (only 5 percent of female and 10 percent of male part-timers would prefer to be full-time).
Crucially, the cluster of policies boosting part-time work exists against a background of relatively robust economic security. The country’s National Old Age Pension guarantees every citizen a flat-rate pension by sixty-five, regardless of previous employment or earnings. A living wage for a single mother in the Netherlands is today about €15,000, whereas her income from working thirty hours per week on minimum wage is roughly €19,000. A family with two adults, both working thirty-hour weeks, earns a median income of roughly €60,000 — easily surpassing the living wage floor for the whole family (two adults, two kids) of €43,000. Part-time work, in other words, is perfectly feasible for everyone.
Things could hardly be more different in the United States.
In California, a living wage for a four-person family is roughly $110,000. If both adults worked part-time (thirty hours per week) the family would take in a median income of just $70,000. If part-time work is unattractive for the bottom half of the population, the situation is far worse for the poorest. A single mother in Los Angeles working thirty hours per week at a minimum wage job will bring in only $24,180 — pitifully short of a living wage, which for such a family is more than three-times greater, at over $80,000.
The reason the living wage in the United States is so much higher than in Europe is because social democratic welfare states provide their citizens with free or subsidized health care, childcare, transport, housing, etc. The amount of private money that anyone needs to acquire their basic needs (the “living wage”) is therefore much less. A good life based on part-time work is completely feasible in many parts of Europe.
Germany is another example. Although the country has many fewer part-time jobs than the Netherlands, they have done an excellent job of shrinking the number of hours worked in standard full-time jobs. Germany currently has the shortest working hours in the world — an average of 1,341 a year — which is, remarkably, 26 percent, or the equivalent of eleven full working weeks, shorter than in the United States. In Berlin, a living wage today is about €15,000 — within reach of anyone on a part-time income, since even a minimum-wage part-time worker makes €18,720.
A Transformative Demand
The bottom line is that constructing an economic system where part-time jobs are both good and widely available is possible. Doing so requires the standard social democratic tools of unions, high taxes, and progressive governments willing to regulate the market on behalf of workers. None of this is easy to achieve, particularly in countries with as weak a labor movement and as powerful a business class as the United States. But political will, not technical feasibility, is what is standing in the way of a good life for the majority.
In these times of crisis, it is easy to feel dispirited and hopeless. And when hope departs, cynicism grows. The vision of a freer society built around good part-time work is one antidote to such cynicism. It is a bold, feasible demand — at once radical and realistic in the medium term. The elements that are required already exist in various places around the world.
The result would not be a utopia. It would not solve all our problems. But it could transform our lives.