Igniting debate on shorter working hours

His ambition is to awaken our longing for a life which doesn’t revolve around wage labour.
“If I had a citizen’s salary, I would do the same things I do now – read, write and have an occasional go with a scrubbing-brush, to make life more real. Others might play computer games, which would of course be perfectly OK”, says sociologist Roland Paulsen, who has become a bit of a standard-bearer for the anti-work movement.

Roland Paulsen

Sociologist Roland Paulsen has become something of a standard-bearer for the anti-work movement.

Roland Paulsen came to Lund from Uppsala barely two years ago. He enjoys the research environment and the smaller size of the city. His workplace at the Department of Business Administration is within cycling distance of his apartment in the city centre, where he lives with his wife Anna Lindqvist, a psychology researcher.

Roland Paulsen had recently defended his doctoral thesis on empty labour when he was appointed to a position in Lund, but what made him known to the general public was a book he had written previously: “Arbetssamhället – Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin” (The work-based society – How labour survived technology).

“I was working part-time as a tube station ticket clerk but I had too little to do. So I decided to write about how increasing numbers of jobs are rationalised out of existence by technological development, while lots of new, often meaningless jobs are invented in order to keep the growth cycle in motion”.

His doctoral thesis, also about labour, is based on interviews with just over forty employees in the private and public sectors.

“What emerged was that most of them spent up to half their working day on activities unrelated to their work duties. They surfed the internet, took care of private matters, slept or composed music. I call this ‘empty labour’.”

Salaried employees are less controlled and can more easily slack off than workers on the shop floor. But international studies show that, on average, two hours per day are spent on empty labour, says Roland Paulsen.

What particularly aroused his interest in the interviews was how the empty labour often did not depend on people being lazy, but on a lack of meaningful tasks.

“The work-based society’s big problem is not a shortage of jobs, but that we compensate for the jobs which are continually being rationalised out of existence with mainly meaningless jobs. This is a major societal crisis, but we don’t talk about it, because it is of a spiritual nature”, he says.

Roland Paulsen takes part in debates, gives interviews and lectures and writes articles to rouse public discussion on the issue of a general reduction in working hours.

“It is a hard struggle because the whole of the western world is organised around wage labour. Working is the norm and distancing yourself from wage labour is perceived as a direct threat.

The greatest obstacle is that wage labour has become our only tool for distributing assets within society”, he continues.

“I understand those who say we must create new jobs, in order to have a tax base to finance welfare. That is how we have built up the system. But labour is not a good tool for asset distribution; if the important thing is to get money moving, the substance of labour becomes secondary. Among other things, it leads to a situation in which those that are of least use actually often earn most.”

In the past forty years, productivity has risen sharply in Sweden and profits have soared. In spite of this, real wages stagnated between 1976 and 1996 and only began to increase somewhat in the mid-nineties. The eight-hour working day seems to be set in stone.

It is a small elite that collects the profits. If you include capital in other countries, one per cent of the Swedish population owns 40 per cent of assets.

“The market economy functions like a dogma to which we have capitulated. We moan about the bonus systems but consider it natural that the rich get richer. If you try to prevent it, the capitalists flee and Sweden loses in global competitiveness, or so we believe.

“But globalisation is not an anonymous force”, says Roland Paulsen.

“We can influence the sort of globalisation we want to have; for example, we can choose to tax turnover and capital to finance welfare. Why should a company which replaces an accountant with a computerised accounting system suddenly pay less tax?”

Thus the continuously growing pie would suffice if we divided it differently and we could afford welfare even if we worked less, according to Roland Paulsen. But there are strong economic forces working against such a solution.

According to Karl Marx, human beings became alienated when they ended up on the assembly line. Roland Paulsen points out how meaningless work today alienates people from themselves and even makes them depressed. Meanwhile, unemployment is marked out as almost criminal. In a new book – “Vi bara lyder” (“We only obey”) – he writes about the humiliation of the jobless, about the focus on control of the Swedish Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) and about pretend jobs.

“No one questions what we are working on – it is the mere fact that we are salaried workers which is important. Salaried employment has acquired an almost religious status. We are to work eight hours a day, at any cost, and into increasingly old age …”

Hanging on to this work norm becomes even more absurd when many more jobs will disappear as digital development moves forward, he believes.

But don’t we need salaried employment for the sake of the community?

“This is a common argument which rests on the deluded romanticising of work. Research shows that only one third of workers are so satisfied with their jobs that they would consider continuing even if they gained financial independence. All the rest would quit.”

How is the work-based society to be dismantled, then? Roland Paulsen is favourable to a solution involving a basic income, but a statutory right to shorter working hours is more realistic.

“During the 1900s we gradually reduced working hours and as recently as the seventies, all political parties, except the centre right Moderates, agreed that it was a natural step in a society less and less dependent on human labour. Since then, productivity in Sweden has doubled, yet even a reform as timid as a six-hour working day is considered totally unrealistic.”

Another proposal is to build on the ‘commons’.

“You can extend free services and benefits. We already have healthcare, libraries and free education and could add public transport and housing. Then people would be less dependent on wage labour.”

But it also involves a change in attitude.

“I believe in awakening a longing for something else. If you think about the summer holidays when you were small – the feeling of not living under a yoke. That may be a memory with which we can reconnect to prove that it is possible to live in a different way.”

Text: Britta Collberg

Photo: Gunnar Menander


MORE ABOUT Roland Paulsen

Born in 1981 in Dalarna, grew up on a farm. “The farm went bankrupt in the 90s crisis. My parents split up. Dad retrained as a chef, mum became an administrator at the Swedish Film Institute.”

Married to Anna Lindqvist, researcher in psychology.

He earned his PhD with an internationally acclaimed thesis on “empty labour”. It was recently published by Cambridge University Press. Researcher at the Department of Business Administration.

Active social commentator and standard-bearer for the anti-work movement. Advocates tax on turnover and capital, basic income for all and a statutory right to shorter working hours.

Currently in the news with a new book to come out in spring: “We only obey”. A study of the Swedish Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) “which is expected to have a solution to everything and should really be called The Swedish Unemployment Control Service”. The book also forms the basis for a puppet show to open in Malmö in the spring, directed by Erik Holmström, whose previous work includes staging the much-discussed SCUM manifesto show.


Roland Paulsen on…

… working as a researcher …

My work is not necessary to society – at least not in the short term. Yet strangely I am paid more than a nurse, whose work is much more useful.

… academia…

The best thing is the degree of freedom. If you have the discipline to say no to certain things, you can survive as an intellectual and there is almost no limit to what you can do. I think people should venture outside their own little field, stick their nose into things people don’t already know and get them out into society, rather than just writing scholarly articles which nobody reads…

The worst thing is the publishing and citation hysteria, the huge administrative apparatus and the hierarchy which can tempt you to start climbing in order to gain symbolic power. Then you have lost your freedom as a researcher. Mats Alvesson and I are currently writing about “citation inflation” and the system among researchers of citing one another in order to improve their CVs.

… ideological affiliation …

I am a feminist and I expect feminists to get more involved in criticism of the work-based society.

I don’t call myself a Marxist, although I agree with parts of his analysis. Marxists tend towards orthodoxy and sectarianism, not least within academia.

I am involved in environmental issues but refrain from talking about the end of the planet. I believe that we absolutely do have choices and can influence developments. In addition, we are not all in the same boat. Poor people in coastal areas will be affected first. If the end of the planet happens, the last billionaires will certainly have saved themselves in specially constructed spaceships.

Read also about other researchers involved in public debate: Andreas Bergh and Inger Enkvist