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Sweden’s six-hour workday has been vastly exaggerated

Challenging assumptions about what a working life should look like

November 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

With headlines such as “Why Sweden’s New 6-Hour Work Day Standard Is a Good Idea” and “What the U.S. could learn from Sweden’s 6-hour work day” lighting up our newsfeeds, it would be easy to believe that Sweden had made yet another giant stride towards attaining work-life balance paradise.

The reality of Sweden’s six-hour workday is a little less revolutionary. Starting early 2015, the town of Gothenburg initiated a yearlong trial at a local nursing home: some 60 nurses switched from eight- to six-hour days, with the same salary as before. Researchers are looking at changes in productivity, overall health and happiness among the staff, number of sick days and staff retention, as well as satisfaction among the elderly residents. A handful of other places, including some small private companies, have followed suit.

The trial is ongoing and its effects have yet to be fully evaluated, which means that even in Sweden, the study has generated a great deal more debate and opinion than it has, so far, any concrete facts or analysis. This should not surprise us: the story of Sweden’s six-hour workday fits in neatly with a broader narrative of Nordic progressivism.

Today, Sweden, Denmark and Norway collectively serve as a canvas onto which liberals and conservatives in the U.S. project their hopes and fears, particularly around election time. Shareable memes featuring debatable statistics, and fawning puff pieces — usually illustrated by a sunny aerial view of Stockholm’s Old Town — reinforce the image of Scandinavia as a beacon of social welfare. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders even touts Denmark as a working example of some of the policies he wants to implement in the U.S.

Meanwhile, for those on the right, Sweden is presented as a horrifying example (sans sunny aerial view) of bloated government and draconian tax laws leading to economic tyranny.

News of the “six hour” workday feeds a growing desire to challenge assumptions about what a working life should look like, among, in particular, young people let down by an economy in which stable, long-term careers are harder to come by.

It’s a growing trend in Sweden, too, where people in precarious forms of employment, generally defined as those with temporary or zero-hour contracts, now make up about 10 percent of the work force — a proportion that has steadily increased over the last 20 years. It’s no wonder that it’s so appealing to de-emphasize employment as an individual’s central source of meaning and identity. 

The political will to invest in a universal six-hour workday simply does not exist in Sweden today.

While international coverage has mainly focused on the increased productivity and health benefits of shorter working days, for the Swedish left, the reform is also seen as a means of realizing more ideological ambitions. A shorter working day could create more jobs, with new hires needed to pick up the hours lost to the reduction. It is seen as an act of solidarity, of sharing work in times of unemployment and slow growth, and as a means of achieving the aim of full employment: a kind of nationwide version of the practice among some companies of temporarily introducing furloughs and reduced hours in order to avoid layoffs. (While unemployment in Sweden has been falling since the recession, it is now around 7 percent, with higher percentages among the young, foreign-born, or those without college degrees.)

Reducing working hours is also seen — perhaps particularly among supporters in the Green Party — as a step towards towards a greener, less consumption-driven economy, where free time is prioritized over higher wages, a bigger house, another car. These ideas are a little more complex and might be harder to swallow, even for liberals, in radically pro-business America. Certainly more so than the happy image of a nurse who has decided to use her newfound free time to take up jogging.

Meanwhile, the trial at Svartedalen nursery home has just been extended another year. While the statistics aren’t yet in, interviews suggest that the nursing staff is happier, more alert and less stressed. The residents are also pleased, and the quality of care has increased. But the trial isn’t cheap: 14 new nurses have been hired to cover the extra shifts. This is also the primary concern among conservatives, who argue that a universal reduction working hours would be prohibitively expensive, cause stagnating wages with reduced growth and a diminishing tax base as the result.

That is why an across-the-board reduction of working hours won’t happen in Sweden for a good while yet. Although this most recent study may be the most comprehensive so far, it is by no means the first: Experiments with six-hour workdays were made in a number of municipalities throughout the 90’s. Calls for a six-hour workday have been heard since the early 1970’s. Isolated trials aside, however, none of the political parties that have reduced working hours as part of their platform — the Left, the Green Party, and Feminist Initiative — have made the issue a priority on the national level. Neither has LO, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. Ironically, the Social Democrats, a party that supports the working class, no longer has any mention of a six-hour workday in its party platform. Rather, they speak of the need for an increase in total working hours, primarily by raising the retirement age and by guaranteeing full-time employment for current part-time workers.

The political will to invest in a universal six-hour workday, in other words, simply does not exist in Sweden today.

The Swedish six-hour workday stories and tales like it — such as the one about Sweden running out of garbage that made the rounds on social media a couple of years ago — seem to fill a certain need, particularly in the U.S. The dream of the progressive little country in the North is rooted in the hope that another, better way of life is possible. 

Olivia Olsen is a writer living in Stockholm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Europe, Sweden

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