Need a good reason to relax? Try the recession

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Finally, a potential upside to the downturn. In past recessions, employers instituted shorter work hours to cut costs and save jobs, a historian says, suggesting this economic crisis could leave people with more time for life outside of work -- albeit with a smaller paycheque.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/03/2009 (4897 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Finally, a potential upside to the downturn. In past recessions, employers instituted shorter work hours to cut costs and save jobs, a historian says, suggesting this economic crisis could leave people with more time for life outside of work — albeit with a smaller paycheque.

“We have been selling off our leisure over the last 30 years,” says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa. “Is it possible to redefine progress as not only increased consumption and a growing economy, but also increased free time?”

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Kellogg’s instituted a six-hour workday in its plants to take up the slack of too many people and not enough jobs, he says. Within two years, workers were accomplishing as much in six hours as they had in eight because they were less tired and more efficient, he says, and the policy was so popular — even with its accompanying wage reduction — that remnants lasted into the 1980s.

“The adjustments workers make are for the most part positive,” says Hunnicutt, who will present his research on Monday in a lecture series at the University of Waterloo. “They will lose some wages, of course, but in return they have extra time for family and community.”

In some cases, extra time compensates for lost money, says Donna Lero, Jarislowsky chair in families and work at the University of Guelph. Shorter work hours could mean reduced childcare and commuting costs, she says, as well as more time to care for aging parents and flexibility to negotiate household tasks with partners.

“The trick is to avoid one-size-fits-all thinking and think about how this will work for some workers better than others,” she says.

France is seen as a leader in this area after instituting shorter work weeks in the mid-90s, she says, while Finland is known for “flexicurity” — offering employers and workers a satisfying combination of flexibility and security.

On the other hand, news of temporary shutdowns at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler plants in Canada was met with consternation in recent months.

Hunnicutt hopes that rather than forcing work-hour reductions on the unwilling, this downturn inspires a re-evaluation of work-life balance.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, work hours declined dramatically in industrialized Western nations, he says, with one scholar in the 1930s offering the sunny prediction that people would be working just three hours a day by the 1980s.

Then consumerism kicked in, Hunnicutt says, encouraging consumption and discouraging leisure in order to pay for it. Now, he believes our identities are so entwined with our work that leisure time is seen as a frill or worse — a daunting stretch of nothingness that forces us to face uncomfortable questions about who we are when we’re not yoked to our jobs.

“The security of work gives us that meaning, that identity,” he says.

— Canwest News Service

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