Should I Work Less for the Climate?

Should I Work Less for the Climate?
Illustration: Vicky Leta

Welcome to Burning Questions, a new series where Earther answers the most common asks we get on how to address climate change. Many people want to do something, anything to help address the climate crisis. We answer your questions about how to help change your life — and the systems that will save us. Check out our past Burning Questions here.

So, you’ve just come through 18 months of a pandemic and realised there’s more to life than work. Every moment is precious, why waste more time at a job that will never love you back?

Amen, friend. Amen.

As the world begins to figure out the future (whatever it looks like), the prospect of working less looms large. Doing so could also come with important climate benefits, provided it’s done right. A wealth of research shows that less work could benefit the climate by reducing commuting, the amount of time office lights and computers are sucking up electricity, and even reducing conspicuous consumption. (No, seriously; a 2011 study found people putting in more hours “favour conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles.”)

“The work that I’ve done and that of others have has looked at how the average hours of work in a country and emissions [correlate],” said Juliet Schor, a sociologist and economist at Boston College. “[We] show a significant relationship between carbon emissions and hours of work; shorter hours of work are associated with lower carbon emissions.”

Schor and others’ work is correlational, which means they haven’t teased out the exact cause. Still, it points to a future with less work as one with lower emissions.

How to Work Less

Economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that automation would get us to a 15-hour workweek. Alas, that is not the case. The 40-hour workweek is standard in the U.S., and a growing number of people are working more hours at gruelling jobs and side hustles to get by.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to working less in a way that’s climate-friendly. The pandemic has shown office work can oftentimes be performed remotely, and cutting your commute is one way to reduce emissions. That doesn’t exactly get you to less work, though, just less time getting to work.

The simplest answer is to either make enough money to work less or live a lighter lifestyle that requires earning less. That answer is, of course, deeply unsatisfying, particularly in our current system that holds up overwork, neverending growth, and ceaseless consumption as the ultimate ideation of success. And for many folks, overwork is the only way to actually pay the bills. Gig workers and those in precarious positions are already making too little.

The realest answer is that for the vast majority of us, working less — whether for the climate or our own mental health — is simply not an option thanks to the way society is currently structured. To truly live the low-carbon good life requires engaging with your coworkers, community, and elected officials.

There’s currently a bill in the House introduced by Rep. Mark Takano to enshrine a four-day, 32-hour workweek as the law of the land. In a piece for the Guardian, Takano noted that “workers reported anywhere from a 25% to 40% increase in productivity, as well as an improved work/life balance, less need to take sick days, more time to spend with family and children, less money spent on childcare, and a more flexible working schedule which leads to better morale.”

But a four-day week may not be the definitive answer to working less, let alone in a climate-friendly way. (Takano didn’t mention climate in the piece or when he introduced the legislation.) Schor noted that a four-day week where workers have staggered shifts could mean office lights stay on and computing-intensive work would continue just as it normally would, negating a chunk of the carbon savings. There are other fixes you can fight for, though, and ways to fight for them.

“Historically, the thing that has won a shorter work week and work year here [in the U.S.] and in Europe is the trade union movement,” said Jamie McCallum, a sociologist at Middlebury. “As a trade union movement has waned and been eroded, so have the gains it made in winning leisure time. It’s tough to tell people, ‘oh, you want a shorter workweek? Then join a union,’ because it’s a lifetime commitment to do it in America. And it might not work, but it’s still very reasonable advice.”

McCallum added there are local fights to get paid sick and parental leave that have taken on urgency in the pandemic. He points to a law passed last year in Vermont, where he’s located, that enshrines 40 hours per year of sick leave for workers as well as laws in a few states and municipalities that call for predictive scheduling laws so workers have stable hours.

“Winning those kinds of other policies, which chip away [at overwork] and offer people more discretionary time when needed, is probably more plausible and interesting,” McCallum said.

Other countries are even further ahead of the curve. The Netherlands has a law that allows workers to request reduced hours for up to a year without fear of retaliation from bosses. In Germany, workers have six weeks of guaranteed paid six leave. Danish workers put in 420 few hours (sick) on average compared to their American counterparts.

“The American dream is alive and well in Denmark,” McCallum said.

It’s Not Just Less Work, It’s a Different Mentality

Structuring our world around work that’s more climate-friendly and offers more low-carbon leisure time isn’t just about scheduling. It’s about fixing the systems we have. Schor’s work shows countries or states with high inequality also have high carbon emissions.

“There are two possible two explanations,” she said. “One is those high-income individuals have really outsized carbon footprints, which we know they do. But the other is that the places with high concentration of wealth — and we’ve looked at this across countries and also across states in the U.S. — are also the places that the … political power of the people who want to keep polluting is great.”

While the link between higher taxes on the wealthy and lowering workers’ carbon emissions may seem wildly tenuous, the connective thread is there — and there’s every reason to tug on it. There will be resistance given the concentrations of wealth and power in the U.S., but unravelling it is vital to address climate change (to say nothing of the societal ills).

Schor also noted that the focus on economic growth alone obscures another mindset change, one where we see lower hours worked as a sign of productivity with real benefits. “If you take productivity growth in the form of lower hours of work, rather than expand your output, you will have lower carbon emissions,” she said.

There’s also a need to prioritise different types of work. The pandemic has shown us the value of care workers, which is the ultimate form of low-carbon work. An oft-cited fact in climate circles is that wind turbine technician is the fastest-growing job in the U.S. What goes unmentioned is that six of the top 10 jobs are in the medical and care fields. Making sure those are well-paying jobs where workers are organised is crucial to solving multiple needs in our society, including lower emissions.

“A Green New Deal, for example, would prioritise low carbon employment like that,” McCallum said. “And of course, prioritising a better working life for those people, which would certainly mean more money and less time, is great.”