John De Graaf: How I Would Change the World


Of course, improving the world will require many changes but here’s how I would start: There is nothing sacred about the 40- hour work routine we’ve been following since the 1930s.

John_de_GraafAs early as 1784, Benjamin Franklin declared that if every man or woman worked on something useful for four hours a day, it would be enough to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life. In the 1930s, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour working week within 100 years and by 1965, a US Senate subcommittee thought such a dream might be a reality by the year 2000. Instead, we chose to use all of our productivity gains to produce more, the lion’s share of which went to the top 1% of earners.


There are several reasons to shorten working time, either by reducing the working week or increasing holidays.

  1. It would improve our health. Work-stress is a killer – the “new tobacco” in the words of one cardiologist. Less work means more time to relax, exercise and eat properly and to connect with family and friends, all of which are essential to good health.
  2. It would strengthen families and communities and allow more opportunities for civic engagement and volunteering.
  3. It would improve our environment. Studies in Sweden show that shorter- hour workers have smaller ecological footprints and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their longer-hour counterparts.
  4. It would increase employment while reducing consumerism, a necessary reduction on a finite planet. As computer-driven technologies increasingly eliminate jobs, it will require either unsustainable levels of growth to keep people gainfully employed or shortening and sharing of existing work, supplemented perhaps by a Basic Income Guarantee paid for by taxes on new technologies and financial speculation.

There will be resistance to this idea at first, from those who believe they must continually earn more to be happy. But evidence from the World Happiness Report and the UNICEF report on Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries makes it clear that the world’s happiest countries are those in northern Europe where working hours are shortest. These countries include the Netherlands with the shortest annual working hours and highest percentage of part-time workers. UNICEF ranks the wellbeing and happiness of Dutch children as the world’s highest, due in no small part to the fact that their parents have time for them.

Shorter working hours do not destroy economies. The countries with the shortest hours have the healthiest economies in Europe while Greece, with the longest working hours, suffers. Increasingly, enlightened businesses are learning that long work hours stifle creativity and productivity. Google co-founder Larry Page now advocates a 32-hour working week.

If we want to reduce unemployment, improve health and happiness and assure environmental sustainability, shorter working time is the obvious place to start.

John de Graaf is a filmmaker, co-author of the best-selling books ‘Affluenza’ and ‘What’s The Economy For, Anyway?’ and President of Take Back Your Time. He lives in Seattle, Washington.


Photo Credit: Gabriel Cayres from flickr



  1. There are so many creative ways to redefine work and the hours we need to devote to it. Changing our mindset to embracing leisure and play in our lives is an important piece of the puzzle. When we value overwork (which I think in large part many of us do) we can’t even begin to embrace the concept of shorter work weeks — I’m hopeful, but there is a lot of work still to do.