“Work less, work all,” chanted the 50,000 or so workers from member countries who invaded the quiet streets of Luxembourg on November 20, as the leaders of the European Union gathered there for a special council to deal with the scourge of unemployment. While the slogan staked the combined claim for the right to leisure and the right to work, its concrete expression–the demand for a thirty-five-hour week (or, in some cases, a thirty-hour and four-day week)–does not yet unite European workers the way the eight-hour day or the forty-hour week did in the past. But will it do so in the future?
The decision to hold this meeting was made in Amsterdam in June, to save the face of Lionel Jospin, France’s new Socialist prime minister, who had to eat his words and accept a “stability pace’ extending the financial constraints of the European Union for ever. As compensation, Jospin was allowed to argue that a union counting nearly 18 million jobless–10.7 percent of the labor force–should deal with unemployment and not only with inflation. Alas, the financial rules confirmed in Amsterdam were binding, while those proposed in Luxembourg, notably against youth and long-term unemployment, are mere recommendations. Yet the Luxembourg meeting was not as parochial and insignificant as it looked. It did put on the historical agenda a question both common and crucial: the shifting role of work in our fast-changing society.
As long as work is, for most people, not a satisfying form of self-fulfillment–and we are not heading in a direction where it will be–a reduction of working hours is desirable in itself. Leisure should provide time not only for rest but also for social, cultural and other activity, individual and collective. Historians may view the second half of this century as a strange period when productivity rose spectacularly but the burden of labor was barely lightened. For a long period after the Second World War, in most of Western Europe, the workweek hovered around forty-four hours.
It took the structural crisis of the seventies to precipitate a substantial decline in working time. Between 1973 and 1996, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, working hours dropped in Germany by more than 16 percent, to an average of 1;560 a year, and in France by more than 13 percent, to an average of 1,645. The United States was the odd country of the Western world, with the annual workload actually rising to 1,951 hours. Since the figures are calculated by dividing total hours by the number of people employed, and this was a period of rapid growth of part-time, temporary and other forms of precarious labor, those in full employment worked much longer than the average. These comparisons are enough to justify Juliet Schor’s eloquent title The Overworked American.
But the issue in Europe is not, alas, whether leisure is desirable in itself. It is whether a mandated reduction of working hours can be a weapon against unemployment. While two national experiments are on the European agenda, the Italian one, an attempt to reconcile the center-left government with its Communist allies, is not yet in the drafting stage. The French government, on the other hand, has just proposed a provisional law specifying that on January 1,2000, the legal workweek will go down from thirty-nine hours to thirty-five. Meanwhile, private companies that reduce hours by 10 percent and increase staff by at least 6 percent as a result will get an annual subsidy of just over $1,500 per employee. In 1999, a final version of the law, drawing from experience and negotiations, will be proposed. Yet will many jobs result?