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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

 
Why not reduce the work week (as long as pay doesn't drop)?

by David Atkins

I've written frequently here before about the multiple effects of globalization, deskilling, flattening and especially mechanization on the workforce. There are many factors leading to the disempowerment of labor in the labor market--some them overtly intentional such as the weakening of organized labor in the United States, but many also structural in a global economy. The problem is rapidly getting worse: even as wages decline and inequality grows, several studies indicate that at least half of the jobs we do today won't exist within a few decades.

Forward-thinking economists and progressive thinkers have been considering how best to handle an economy that simply needs far less skilled labor than it used to. One of the sexiest and most appealing solutions is a basic universal income. Other proposed solutions include guaranteed jobs programs.

But a deceptively simple approach might simply be to reduce the workweek. After all, if the problem is that productivity and profits are skyrocketing even as wages flatline, and if all this increased productivity is exacerbating climate change while forcing several people to do the jobs of one person, and if workers have less leisure time than ever before, why not simply work fewer hours for increased pay?

Such ideas are currently outside the mainstream of American discourse, but they won't be for long. The Guardian had a decent write-up on the idea a couple of years ago:

A thinktank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which has organised the event with the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, argues that if everyone worked fewer hours – say, 20 or so a week – there would be more jobs to go round, employees could spend more time with their families and energy-hungry excess consumption would be curbed. Anna Coote, of NEF, said: "There's a great disequilibrium between people who have got too much paid work, and those who have got too little or none."

She argued that we need to think again about what constitutes economic success, and whether aiming to boost Britain's GDP growth rate should be the government's first priority: "Are we just living to work, and working to earn, and earning to consume? There's no evidence that if you have shorter working hours as the norm, you have a less successful economy: quite the reverse." She cited Germany and the Netherlands.

Robert Skidelsky, the Keynesian economist, who has written a forthcoming book with his son, Edward, entitled How Much Is Enough?, argued that rapid technological change means that even when the downturn is over there will be fewer jobs to go around in the years ahead. "The civilised answer should be work-sharing. The government should legislate a maximum working week."

Many economists once believed that as technology improved, boosting workers' productivity, people would choose to bank these benefits by working fewer hours and enjoying more leisure. Instead, working hours have got longer in many countries. The UK has the longest working week of any major European economy.

Skidelsky says politicians and economists need to think less about the pursuit of growth. "The real question for welfare today is not the GDP growth rate, but how income is divided."

The Independent has a similar, lengthier story this week:

The council at Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, has announced that it is to begin a year-long 30-hour week trial for city workers. “We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days,” said Mats Pilhem, the deputy mayor. On the right, the reaction to shortening the working day is generally for the bigwigs to scoff into their merlot and mutter about excessive regulation. “This is just more cloud-cuckoo-land thinking from the Common Weal,” spluttered Murdo Fraser, the Tory Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) spokesman, in reaction to the idea of a four-day workweek for Scotland. And mention the idea to the leaders of the CBI, “the voice of business”, and you’ll get them spitting their lobster down your front.

But even the utilitarian arguments don’t stand up. There is a quite a body of evidence to suggest that longer hours do not lead to greater productivity. The three-day week in the 1970s, for example, led to a drop of only 6 per cent in productivity. The strivers still have the upper hand, it’s true. The futurologists look forward to a more efficient human being. They are hoping to create brain implants that will increase productivity. Some claim that in the future, man will be able to do without that inconvenient necessity, sleep. Still more reckon that we can get rid of another pesky nuisance when it comes to growth in GDP: death. Mad. And sociologists have recently noted the phenomenon of busy-ness as a status symbol: the super-rich are also proud to say how super-busy they are. The right in general enthusiastically embraces such techno-utopianism.

On this issue, though, history shows that the right is wrong. Positive and humanitarian changes to the working day, which lead to an improved quality of daily life, have traditionally come from the left. In 1810, Robert Owen started campaigning for the 10-hour day. Early working hours were completely unregulated and factories were employing nine-year-olds to work 14 hours a day. Owen’s campaign must have sounded like insufferable intrusion to the early mill-owners and their friends. Writers helped to change public opinion: Oliver Twist was published in 1838. In 1848, the idea became law with one of the Factories Acts.

In the early 20th century, workers across the world campaigned for the eight-hour day. In 1919, following agitation from anarchists, Spain become the first country in Europe to pass an eight-hour day law. Some large employers, notably Zeiss in Germany, introduced an eight-hour day at the turn of the century.

In the US, perhaps surprisingly for a country built on a combination of the Protestant work ethic and the toil of countless African slaves, Kellogg’s introduced a six-hour day on 1 December 1930, the very year that Keynes wrote his essay arguing for the very same.

The six-hour day lasted till 1985. This vision became known as “liberation capitalism”. Today, various lefty professors there, such as Arlie Russell Hochschild, of the University of California at Berkeley, have argued that work has gotten out of hand. The State of Utah introduced a four-day workweek in 2008. Three-quarters of the workforce said they preferred the new arrangement, and the state reportedly saved more than $4m through savings on overtime and absentee rates.
If the Left, generally speaking, is going to a have a real economic voice in this country that actually sparks the enthusiasm and imagination of the electorate, these are the sorts of ideas that will need to come to the foreground. Raising the minimum wage is important, but most people make more than minimum wage. Life is getting harder, free time is slim, and the middle class is disappearing. It's well past time that more politicians and activists started taking seriously how society will function when there's simply not enough work to go around.


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