In a successful economy we could all work 15 hours a week – and it would sort out gender equality too

Susie Mesure
Just 11 per cent of men work part-time, compared with 41 per cent of women, mainly because of parenting commitments: Getty

How many men do you know who work 15 hours a week? No, me neither. But I bet you can think of plenty of women. There’s me, for starters, what with having three young kids and an aversion to paying a nanny more than I earn most days.

I’m the future, though, at least according to John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 prediction that by 2030 we’d all be working just 15 hours per week, what with all the industrial and technological advances, leaving us puzzling how to fill our gaping leisure time.

Yet here we are with the clock ticking down to Keynes’s deadline and in reality I’m the odd one out, given that women in the UK work an average of 34 hours per week and men around 39 hours.

Thank goodness, then, for Rutger Bregman, a young Dutch historian who thinks if we all slashed our working week to just 15 hours, we’d reach utopia far quicker. Spending far less time on paid work is one of the main tenets of his new book, Utopia For Realists And How We Can Get There, along with a universal basic income and open borders.

Crucially he thinks everyone should work fewer hours, not just women feeling guilty about outsourcing child-rearing to someone else or those caring for other relatives or partners who need extra help. Just 11 per cent of men work part-time, compared with 41 per cent of women, official figures show.

And, to state the obvious, Bregman is a man, and the more men calling for everyone to step back, the better. Because when women weigh in on this sort of thing, they tend to lean the other way. Hello, Sheryl Sandberg!

Stress, accidents caused by overtime, climate change, unemployment, and generational angst: all these and much more could be solved by working less, according to Bregman. He is light on practical solutions but does suggest embracing the notion of job shares could help. I might have co-edited a weekend magazine with a female colleague if my former (male) bosses had been up for our proposal.

How great, then, that The Guardian has joint political editors and that the editor of Vogue recently agreed to let the feature editor split that role with the person who covered her maternity leave, creating the glossy fashion magazine’s first senior job share.

Admittedly the four people splitting those roles are all women – as are both The Guardian and Vogue editors – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t men out there hankering for the same deal. Staff also share senior roles at the Green Party, where Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas are joint leaders, Lloyds Banking Group, the charity Age UK, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, and Croydon council, according to Timewise, a group that promotes flexible working.

The bottom line is that women need more men to start cutting their paid hours, because only then can women hope to edge closer to gender equality in the workplace. And vice versa in the house, where on average men do 16 hours of unpaid work such as childcare, laundry and cleaning, compared to the 26 hours of unpaid work done by women each week.

Not that all unpaid work is a slog, of course. Why should men cede the joys of small kids to their partners just because social pressure dictates they should be the ones earning most of the cash?

This all matters because countries with short working weeks, such as Norway and Sweden, consistently do better in gender equality rankings as work ends up being shared more fairly between men and women.

Which all rather reminds me that on hearing I had three kids, a male chief executive asked me last week, “Well, what are you doing here then?” How I wish I’d asked him, a father of two, the same question.

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