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Anna Rawhiti-Connell: Work less and prosper

'Let's deal with inequality and ensure everybody can engage in work that’s structured around their lives', writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell. 'Wellbeing can't be a luxury afforded only to white collar professionals'.

In September last year, I left a full-time salaried job and became a freelancer. I have worked almost full-time in salaried employment since I was 20. For 20 years of my life I lived a life structured around work. And then suddenly, and almost unconsciously, I stopped living that life.

I have essentially been working part-time. With more time on my hands I’ve done other things. I’ve gardened. I’ve looked after friends’ children. I’ve made home-made dog food which I don’t recommend unless you’re okay with the smell of fish poaching and broccoli boiling for hours. I have, fingers crossed, repaired my attention span to the point where I can now read chapters of a book without checking Twitter every five minutes. I have talked to strangers on the beach with my dog. I’ve yarned with the guy at the op-shop and the woman at the library. I have baked and made food from actual ingredients in our pantry. I have signed up to volunteer with two charities. I have enrolled to study.

After six months, I feel like I know what the next chapter of a productive life looks like for me. I feel mentally healthier than I have in a long time. I feel calm.

I’ve been able to do this because my husband works in a job that means we have been able to make rent every fortnight. I also do white-collar work that can be done from home on my own schedule and I can charge several times the minimum wage for it.

The time I’ve had to reconnect with myself and my community has wholly been enabled by my socio-economic status. It might not have been as idyllic as it sounds, but it’s undisputedly been a luxury and that is starting to weigh heavily on my mind.

In a speech to The Productivity Hub in February 2018, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said: ‘I want to see New Zealand reach a point where we are able to work 400 fewer hours a year while producing more than we do today.’

Based on data from Statistics New Zealand and crunched by Figure.NZ, in the last quarter of 2018 women worked an average of 30 paid hours a week. Men worked 37 hours. If Robertson’s aspirations were realised, everyone would get an additional 7-8 hours a week back – essentially a day. We would, based on a traditional five day a week job, all be working four days.

Working four days a week, or working less, is an idea gaining traction. I know I’ve spun this record before and I will keep doing so until it is not the only example, but Perpetual Guardian is doing it with great success.

Currently, the vast majority of flexible working opportunities reside in the corporate sector where outputs are less tangible and highly educated people are more able to advocate for themselves. If you work in the manufacturing sector or in lower paid shift work, your output is tangibly linked to the productivity and profitability of your employer. Fewer hours worked can easily mean less output. And lower wages.

Lifting productivity is undoubtedly the way to improve quality of life. But it cannot be the sole rationale for policy made in this area. In the US, CEOs made 20 times what typical workers made in 1965. In 2013, they made 296 times that amount. From 1973 to 2013, hourly wages rose by 9 percent, but productivity increased by 74 percent.

If there is to be greater growth, the spoils must be distributed more fairly and it must be made sustainably. I have had time to tend to my health, the health of the community and maybe even the planet because I am wealthy and do work that neatly slots into a flexible working paradigm. These are things all people should have the time to do.

In Robertson’s 2018 speech he cites Germany as an aspirational example.

“Union members often sit on company boards as part of the decision-making process, ensuring that employee wellbeing is considered alongside high-level corporate profit and financial targets. It is unsurprising then that German workers on average worked the fewest hours annually in 2016 of all OECD countries, with New Zealand workers on average doing 400 more hours every year.”

The government has a report due out, via the Productivity Commission, on the Future of Work in March next year. This follows its work in opposition in the same area. The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council released a report last month about reaping the benefits of automation. There is much work being done on the future of work.

But, for all the time we might need to get our heads around the impacts of technology and automation, it seems there are some things that could be done right now. Perhaps we already have some of the answers right there in Robertson’s mention of Germany.

Whatever the outcome of the Productivity Commissions’ work, I hope what it produces has some teeth: Teeth to deal with inequality and to ensure everybody can advocate for their right to engage in work that’s structured around their lives. For the sake of all of us, wellbeing cannot be a luxury only afforded to white collar professionals.

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