The Secret to Getting Rich Is Working Less

The less work you do, the more you get done.

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09 July 2014, 12:25pm

Illustration by Cei Willis

Why can't those layabouts get a proper work ethic? You know who I mean – yeah, the bloody Danes. So lazy. Sitting around, watching Borgen and eating bacon butties. They need to learn some lessons from those hard-working Greeks. And what about those Dutch? Why do they insist on skiving off, practising penalties in the park, when the Portuguese are still slaving away at their desks?

Clichés are funny things, aren't they? It's amazing how often they turn out to be the exact opposite of the truth. We're brought up on the idea that Southern Europeans are work-shy – only lifting a finger to make beer and more comfortable hammocks for their endless siestas, it's no wonder their countries are all broke! If only they could learn from those diligent northern Europeans with their protestant work ethic, and so on.

It's total nonsense. The European citizens who tie themselves to their desks for the longest each week are from countries which are neither mostly protestant nor northern European: Greeks and Austrians. Those who cop off earliest, on the other hand, are from Denmark and Lithuania.

In fact, the three Nordic countries in the EU – Sweden, Denmark and Finland – are all towards the bottom of the table and Norwegians work the fewest hours on earth. So, what are the Scandinavian governments doing about their layabout populations? How are they going to whip their workforce into shape to make sure they can keep competing in the global economy?

Gothenburg, the second biggest city in Sweden, has been debating this recently, and they have a plan: cut the working day to six hours. Yes, that's right, despite already showing up for some of the fewest hours in Europe, these Swedes plan to spend even less time in their offices.

Scandinavian countries have something else in common too. They are also among the richest in the world. Of course, in Norway, this is partly because they have loads of oil. But Denmark and Sweden don't, they're just richer than us because they run their economy better than we do. It's not just them. People from the Netherlands, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany are all, on average, also richer than people in Britain despite working fewer hours than we do.

In fact, after Austria and Greece, we clock in with the third highest number of hours in the EU, and British men work longer than any. So are our politicians following Sweden's lead and trying to prise us away from our jobs? Earlier this month, Michael Heseltine – the man behind the government's review of its economic policy – announced that the problem with the British economy is that we “don't get up early enough”. In other words, to fix our economic problems, we should try to be more like Greece.

When almost everyone else in Europe is having a lie in, or has time to – well, to be honest, I have no idea what people do with week day free time, because I barely have time to do the washing up, but whatever it is people do – whilst they are doing that, we're wilting in screenglare. Yet we're only the 10th richest country in the EU, per person.

We're working ourselves to death and not even doing it well. We're like the kid at school who revises really hard for every test, but still gets a “C”. We're James Milner – endlessly pacing up and down the wing no matter where the ball is. Add in the fact that we are the most unequal country in Europe – and so most of the money we do make in the country doesn't come to most of us – and it's time to start asking questions.

Questions like “Is working long hours really the route to success?” and “Why am I slaving away so someone else can get rich?” and “why the fuck are we all stuck indoors on the only sunny day of the year while the rest of Western Europe is out having fun and still getting paid more than us?”

In a sense, none of this should be surprising. The longer someone works, the less productive they are per hour. It's better having offices full of chirpy people working hard then going home on time than tired staff wired on coffee sneaking back to an irate Facebook argument every time the boss isn't looking then drowning their stress in booze in the few moments they do have off work.

But it's about more than that too. In 1891, Oscar Wilde called for us all to work less. In a beautiful piece, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he wrote “man is made for something better than disrupting dirt”. In a thrillingly titled essay called Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren John Maynard Keynes, the grandaddy of macro-economics, argued that we, in the future, ought to work only fifteen hours a week. As he put it “we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”

Both were making a simple point. Back in the early 20th century, people in countries like Britain had enough stuff already, if only it was shared out more fairly. As machines got more and more efficient, it would take less time to make that stuff. So, once we'd made it, why not just clock off for the day, and go sit in a park? Or read your kids a bedtime story? Or, well, I really don't want to know how you'd spend your time, but I imagine you'd enjoy it more than you do at work.

There are other good reasons for everyone to work fewer hours. At the moment, some of us toil away every moment of the day, whilst lots of others want more hours. Surely it'd be much more sensible to redistribute a bit? As the New Economics Foundation pointed out in their report on this a few years ago, the average number of hours worked a week in the UK, when you count unemployed people, is 21. Why don't we stick with that average, but just share it out better?
Working fewer hours a week would mean we could spend more time looking after each other, and if men worked less, maybe we couldn't get away with depending so much on the women in our lives to care for those we love. It would mean we could contribute more to our communities – or actually build communities rather than just rushing past our neighbours while rushing to and from the station. It would mean we'd get fewer stress headaches – British workers are the most stressed in the world. Ultimately, like the Swedes, it would likely make us more productive.

There is a problem with all of this. With our massive inequality, lots of people in Britain live on very low pay. Cutting their hours would make them poorer. So first, we'd need to redistribute some cash from the mega-rich – but I'm sure they'd cope. After all, the richest people in Britain have seen their wealth double since 2009.

Which only leaves us one thing to decide. In the 20th century, trade unions got together and they organised and they liberated a day for us all: Saturday. The question for our generation, then, is this: which day do we want to free for our grandchildren? I vote for Monday.

@Adam Ramsay

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