The Jevons Paradox is a phenomenon spotted by the economist Williams Stanley Jevons. Studying coal production in the 1860s, he noticed that more efficient technologies made people use more coal, not less. If someone invented a steam engine that used half as much coal, he observed, a factory owner wouldn’t run it for half the time. They’d run it for the same amount of time as the old one, and make it do more work.
This paradox is found in lots of places. You fit energy saving bulbs, and then you abandon the habit of turning off lights when you leave a room. You buy a car with better mileage, and so you drive more.
There’s a similar phenomenon in how we use our time. For decades, people have promised that new technologies will bring us more time. Washing machines were supposed to free housewives from the chores of laundry day. Email and IT made us more productive. Online shopping is supposed to be quicker than going to the shops. In the 1950s, some optimists worried that society’s biggest problem would be what to do with all this new free time. And yet somehow, that time dividend never materialised. It was traded for more economic growth instead.
For developed countries, a four day week remains a sound strategy for improving wellbeing without increasing consumption. It would free up time for the things we value most, whether that be church activities, volunteering or hobbies. It would take pressure of those juggling a job with care responsibilities. And with reduced stress and greater motivation, many employers would find that productivity went up rather than down.
The idea of a shorter work week has had a considerable boost recently as some firms have switched to a four day week during the Covid-19 crisis. So it’s a good time to bring the benefits of a shorter working week to broader attention, as the four day week campaign has been doing.
A partnership between the New Economics Foundation, Compass and others, they’ve introduced an accreditation that employers can get to say they support a four day week. You can find out more at their website, with a video introduction below.
Just because we have chosen more money in the past, doesn’t mean we can’t choose more time in future.