Swedes test a future of less work, more play

Swedes test a future of less work, more play
Gothenburg is Sweden's main port and second largest city on its south-western coast.

GOTHENBURG - Robert Nilsson, a 25-year-old mechanic in Sweden's second city Gothenburg, may be the harbinger of a future where people work less and still enjoy a high standard of living.

He gets out of bed at the same time as everyone else, but instead of rushing to work, he takes it easy, goes for a jog, enjoys his breakfast, and doesn't arrive at his Toyota workshop until noon, only to punch out again at 6:00 pm.

"My friends hate me. Most of them think because I work six hours, I shouldn't be paid for eight," Nilsson said, talking while fitting part of a rear window onto a Toyota Prius with swift, expert moves.

Sweden often stuns first-time visitors with its laid-back prosperity, making foreigners wonder how it is possible to have both lots of money and lots of leisure.

Part of the answer, according to economists, is a productive and well-educated workforce that adapts to new technologies quicker than most.

Exactly how much - or how little - Swedes work compared with other nations is a somewhat open question.

"We have a 40-hour work week, but also we have a little more absence than many people and we start work late in life because we study longer," said Malin Sahlen, an analyst at Timbro, a libertarian Stockholm-based think tank.

In 2012, the average Swede worked a total of 1,621 hours, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This is more than the Netherlands with 1,381 hours, but less than Britain with 1,654 hours or the United States with 1,790 hours - and way below Chile's 2,029 and Mexico's 2,226 hours.

"We could work more, that's a fact," said Sahlen.

Less is more

But far from looking to increase time spent at work, some in Sweden are out to prove that less is more and that cutting hours can boost productivity.

In an international productivity ranking by the Conference Board, a non-profit business research organisation, Sweden was already placed close to the top, coming 11th out of 61 countries.

The United States was third, the Netherlands number five, and Britain number 13, whereas Chile and Mexico were both in the bottom third.

Now, the Social Democrat-led city government in Gothenburg is planning to test the impact of shorter hours on productivity, in an experiment beginning on July 1.

One group of government workers in the elderly care sector are to work six hours a day, while another will work the eight they are used to.

After a year, the municipal government will analyse the results and decide whether the six-hour day brings enough savings - in the form of fewer sick days for instance - that it warrants becoming permanent and extended to other sectors.

So far, the plan is limited to the civil service, but city councillor Mats Pilhem of the Left Party is convinced that all of Sweden is headed towards a shorter work day.

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