Oh Those Swedes: Is Less Work, More Play Next?

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Sweden is planning to test the impact of shorter working 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.

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After a year, the municipal government will analyze 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 councelman Mats Pilhem of the Left Party is convinced that all of Sweden is headed toward a shorter work day.

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"People have long work lives, and it's necessary to think of ways to create a more humane environment for them in the workplace," he said.

Critics like Malin Sahlen, an analyst at Timbro, a libertarian Stockholm-based think-tank, warn that the math does not add up in terms of the wider economy, saying it would be far too expensive to make a large part of the labor force work 25 percent less -- for the same pay.

"I think it's a crazy idea and I don't think it's going to be reality either," she said.

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Opponents say shorter workweeks have been experimented with across Europe -- 35 hours in France and Germany, an average of 30 hours in the Netherlands -- to mixed economic results.

"It's the kind of populist and socialist policy that's very dangerous for the economy, and we shouldn't go through with it," warned Maria Ryden, a member of Gothenburg city council for the center-right Moderates, which opposes the plans. "We're capable of working more."

But proponents of cutting the workday point at short-term benefits in the form of fewer sick days, and greater efficiency at work due to fewer breaks.

And they argue that greater savings will come in the long run, with a workforce that is less exhausted and therefore more productive as it approaches retirement.

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