Break the taboo of shorter working hours

Jobs are scarce and we should find ways to share and share alike, writes Wijnand Duyvendak


The Netherlands has a new taboo. No-one dares speak its name: shorter working hours. The unions are silent as the grave, opposition parties pretend it doesn’t exist. Incredibly, at a time of historically high levels of unemployment, the government raises the pensionable age from 65 to 67. This taboo needs to be broken and the sooner the better.

Every day in March a thousand people were registered unemployed. The total number reached 8% of the working population, or some 643,000 people. Unemployment reached a level comparable to the 1980s. Youth unemployment hit 15%. And many fear it will be their job next.

Too optimistic

There is every reason to expect the number of unemployed will grow to 750,000 or 800,000 people in the coming years if we are to believe the sombre CPB and EU prognoses for 2013 and 2014. Not that their prognoses are always right. If anything, they are far too optimistic. A good example of this is the Commission Bakker’s 2008 paper on the labour market.

2015 would see a shortage of 375,000 workers, the commission blithely predicted. They were only wrong by about a million and it is, of course, the other way around. There is no shortage. There is a huge surplus and we would do well to realise there is a lot of hidden unemployment among the self-employed and unregistered unemployed as well.

Scarce goods need to be divided fairly. Now that jobs have become scarce it would make sense to divide them equally among those who can and want to work. Let’s start with the next five years. There are many ways in which shorter working hours can be introduced and we must consider the pros and cons of all of them carefully.


The obvious thing to do is to abolish the proposed rise in the pension age. It might be interesting to find out whether people over 55 would consider cutting their number of working hours in half, thus giving a younger person the chance of a job. A shorter working week, say 32 hours, would create jobs for a great many unemployed.

Fewer working hours or years is high on the wish list of many people who are still in paid employment. It creates space for many forms of unpaid work, like voluntary work or care duties.


The cabinet appointed former CDA MP Mirjam Sterk to be the ‘youth unemployment czar’. On news show Pauw&Witteman she called on young people to ‘improve their chances of a job’, ‘re-train’, ‘broaden their search for work’, and ‘persevere’.

This is putting the onus on the young. It’s typical of what is happening: if you’re unemployed you only have yourself to blame. If you try hard enough you will find work. Social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher says he will do everything in his power to ‘guide people from job to job’.

But minister Asscher: what jobs?

Unemployment is not an individual problem. It’s a structural problem that concerns society as a whole. Our economy is not generating enough work and is destroying jobs at the rate of thousands a month. That is the cause of the present high level of unemployment. There is simply too little paid work to go around. Additional training will only help a small number of people, and so will Asscher’s ‘job to job guidance’.

It is high time we looked at ways of reducing working hours as a means of dividing up the available work fairly.

Wijnand Duyvendak is a former GroenLinks MP.





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