nef have called for a 21 hour week.  They seem to believe in the Lump of Labour fallacy, and are under the mistaken impression that working hours have been getting worse and worse.   But:

1. Certainly not since the year 2000: down by 5%

2. Certainly not since the 19th century: down from >65 to <40 hours per week

3. In a couple of cases, up since the 15th Century.

If anyone is working too hard, it’s nef, producing endless reams of rubbish on the idea that sheer quantity will overcome the criticisms of the sensible majority that realise how stupid their prognoses are.   Well, they have won.  I’m too busy.  Will someone else PLEASE take this piece of rubbish to bits?  I will praise and link to it for ever more.

UPDATE:  Thanks to Chris (see below), here is a post by Phil further mashing up the nef argument in nine ways.  Thanks all for contributions: now we just have to await their  next report, which will be something about replacing all currency with the carrot, or banning foreign holidays for males above the age of 40, or insisting that car wheels are square.  It’ll be along in 2 weeks….


25 thoughts on “Cry for help: will someone else please give this the kicking it needs?

    1. You are too kind. I have a talk with 10 prospective parliamentary candidates to prepare for, otherwise I would have at least attempted a graph. But there are so many other objection: on liberty grounds (i LIKE working hard!), efficiency grounds, …. I can’t believe the FT has carried their story!



  1. Interesting that in the OECD figures Greece stands out as having by far the longest working week.


    Commuting – do the figures include travel-to-work time? Since 2000 according to your data the average British (man, woman, both? can’t remember which it was now) works 59 hours a year less, which is about 1h 8mins or so a week, so let’s say 13 minutes a day. Yet between 1991 and 1997 Andrew Oswald found that commuting times in London had risen by 7mins one way, S.E 5 mins and everywhere else 0.7 mins. Over the country as a whole this came to about 2.5 mins I think. So double that for both ways gives 5 mins, which is slightly more than a third the amount worked less (much more in London, obviously far less outside it and the S.East).

    Now I don’t know what happened in the 2000s – there seems a case to be made that UK outside London/S.East travel to work times might have deterioated, not sure whether those in London could have got worse by another 7 mins though.

  2. Matthew: Indeed, which is one reason that we need to think seriously about the planning system, that forces so many people to live so far from where they work

    And Giles – a graph is not needed. Your post is good enough

  3. I’m surprised you get so uptight about nef. You weren’t taken to a nef seminar as a child or something, were you? Come on, we’re here to help.

    1. … it was horrible…. this man wearing what looked like some kind of plant product walked in and started talking about how 1976 was a really great year . .. . then we all went off to barter our shoes for food ….

  4. Come on, get it all out. Did the bad man show about his triple bottom line accounting? I know, I know. Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

    1. I wouldn’t have minded it if they had just come out and been honest about it: “We’re socialists. We hate inequality, and think consumption is really, you know, Absolutely Fabulous. We want to make up some economic ideas that scratch that itch and give us pleasant day jobs, googling and doing occasional trips to John Lewis and a kibbutz’. I don’t mind those sorts of people – the world needs them.

      But, no. 21 hour week, and pay a kindergarten assistant according to the wages of the parents of the tots. Nuts.

  5. I don’t read nef reports because life is too short, but I was interested by the trend in average working hours that you cited.

    If average working hours have fallen by c. 27 hours/week since the 19th century, and 5% in the past decade, then presumably it is not completely implausible that they could fall by another 13 hours/week over the next 50 years or so, which would take us down to an average of about 21 hours/week.

    Obviously, some people would work longer hours than that, as at present, and others would work fewer. In particular, people aged 16-21 would probably be more likely to work part time (combined with studying), as would people aged 60-75 or those with caring responsibilities.

    Most of the jobs in my organisation that we’ve created over the past 3 years have been 25 hours/week and our experience of this has been overwhelmingly positive.

    In other words, I can imagine the average working week continuing to fall without any particular action being needed or desired.

    1. Exactly. Instead of coercively forcing people not to work more than X or Y, let’s leave them alone, says Giles the radical libertarian

      1. Hi Giles,

        Where in the nef report does it suggest coercively forcing people not to work more than a certain number of hours? E.g. the only recommendation about employers is reduce the costs which employers face in taking on new employees, which sounds like quite a sensible idea.

        I am beginning to suspect that you have not actually read this report and are having a go at a straw man 🙂

  6. Hi Don

    I have not read it in depth: that is why the Cry for Help. But I do see this paragraph:

    Achieving shorter working hours. Conditions necessary for successfully reducing paid working hours include reducing hours gradually over a number of years in line with annual wage increments; changing the way work is managed to discourage overtime; providing active training to combat skills shortages and to help long-term unemployed return to the labour force; managing employers’ costs to reward rather than penalise taking on extra staff; ensuring more stable and equal distribution of earnings; introducing regulations to standardise hours that also promote flexible arrangements to suit employees, such as job sharing, extended care leave and sabbaticals; and offering more and better protection for the self-employed against the effects of low pay, long hours, and job insecurity.

    Some of these are mainstream, like ‘train people’ and the Tory ‘give incentives for hiring’. “Changing the way work is managed to discourage overtime” – now how would that be done? Surely businesses currently manage work as they see fit? If we are proposing another way of doing it, then how will it happen?

    “Introducing regulation to standardise hours…” surely there is something coercive there. You have to obey regulations.

    the other substantive method is the very Nudge-ish ‘change social norms’. I for one am a little chary of the behavioural economic agenda. ‘Make people disapprove of long hours so they don’t happen ….’ I am not sure whether this being unrealistic is the biggest problem, or whether it being realistic would be a still worse outcome.

    And in the ‘resistance from employers’ section they effectively call for tax sanctions so that employers prefer to employ 15 people on21 hours than 10 people on 31. I would rather that was up to the employer and employee, don’t you think? Or maybe you don’t

    1. “they effectively call for tax sanctions so that employers prefer to employ 15 people on 21 hours than 10 people on 31. I would rather that was up to the employer and employee, don’t you think?”

      I might have misunderstood, but this argument is better directed at the current system. At the moment, it is more expensive for employees to take on higher numbers of part time workers than fewer full time workers. nef are suggesting the level playing field through additional incentives that would actually create a situation where it “was up to the employer and employee” whether to hire fewer full timers or more part timers.

      As for “Changing the way work is managed to discourage overtime”, I know of private companies which discourage people taking overtime, because they see it as a symptom of poor time management – doesn’t necessarily require regulations.

      The examples of regulations to standardise hours which they cite are flexi-working, job shares, care leave and sabbaticals – which of these are coercive?

      And it was you who noted how social norms have changed about working hours – very few employers can hire people to work the average working week that was the norm under the Victorians.

      When I read your original post, I’d expected there to be something really crazy in this report, but if your idea of coercion is ‘letting people work flexi-time’, then I’m not really persuaded.

      1. I know why I as an employer prefered fewer employees working longer (45) hours than many more. There are natural fixed costs to each employee – the amount of training, the ownership of the position, and so on. I don’t think it is because of something unnatural in the taxation system that we do what we do, something weird and unequestioned. We have interns in this office. No money issues to speak of, Having twice as many working half the hours each would be hugely unproductive. I am sure you get it. There is not much levelling to do.

        By all means allow companies to plan their hours how they want. But if I were a small business owner who was forced to consider job-shares etc when I didn’t, or forced to give large sabbaticals, then I would consider it a hit to productivity. If they are just saying ‘we hope firms choose to do these things’, well, that’s nice.

        I did NOT argue that social norms are behind the hours going down. There are plenty of good economic reasons to do this. You get richer, you work less, may be behind it. Laws too, sure.

        I still think this report is crazy. It is about Lump of Labour, I think

  7. Do you really not pay your interns? Bit strange for an organisation which is meant to be about equality of opportunity, expanding life chances, spreading opportunities and boosting social mobility. At the moment, the government will even pay employers who take on paid interns for six months through Future Jobs Fund.

    To put the case for more p/t workers, even allowing for the additional fixed costs in hiring more staff, it gives greater flexibility, makes it much easier to ask people to do extra hours for specific projects or to work on key organisational tasks. Perhaps most valuable, you end up with a much more diverse staff team in terms of age and background, which has massive organisational benefits.

  8. We DO pay. (let’s have no slander now). But pay is not the reason we do not have more.

    I am not sure what business you have been in, so I am not sure whether your recommendations come from a theoretical perspective, or experience. I don’t wish to be rude. But I think labour is less homogenous than you seem to think it is. In the businesses that I hope the UK excels at in the future, it will be less like farming piece work and more like professorship. Not through any perverse choices but through learning curves and experience curves.

    If something has massive organisational benefits to do, then I am sure firms will choose to do them. Only the most blinkered socialist woudl think that we need to pass laws to make them do things more efficiently – and I”m sure you’re not one of those.

    1. Apologies- I misunderstood what you meant by ‘no money issues to speak of’. Good to hear you are one of the better think tanks for paying your interns 🙂

      Practical experience on the benefits of hiring p/t workers comes from working in the voluntary sector and managing a rapidly expanding programme with various different funding streams. Obviously, different employers have different needs, and I’m not trying to claim that our approach is a universal best fit solution, but we found massive efficiency gains from employing more part time workers, and the sort of work we do is certainly much more like professorship than like farming piece work!

    2. While I don’t disagree with your broader point, this seems a little too strong for me:

      “If something has massive organisational benefits to do, then I am sure firms will choose to do them. Only the most blinkered socialist woudl think that we need to pass laws to make them do things more efficiently – and I”m sure you’re not one of those.”


  9. The nef is also ignorant of the distinction between market paid hours and unpaid home production hours. Or rather, they seem to think one bad the other good: when both are working hours and not leisure hours.

    Rally rather stange for people who praised the Stiglitz/Sarkozy Commission report which emphasised this very point: it’s leisure hours that matter, not the split between market and home production.

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