US Unemployment: The Only Solution? Work Less
by Elliott R. Morss
In my last employment article, I noted that we only recently figured how to use information technologies effectively. The result? A dramatic increase in the use of labor saving technologies. My conclusion: to get back to full employment, we have consumers will have to be induced to “binge” again. Not a good option. I cited the historical work of Juliet Schor, economist and sociologist and the author of The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure, and more recently, True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-rich, Ecologically Light, Small-scale, High-satisfaction Economy . She points out that historically, civilizations work fewer hours as they develop (Table 1).
Notes: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.
Information on a number of developed countries for more recent years is provided in the following graph. Even over this period, one can see a decline but with an uptick at the end of the period as people work more hours after capital losses in the global recession.
Average Number of Hours Worked
Is this what the US should be trying to do? Try to get workers to work less? Many commenters have suggested that getting people to work less is unrealistic. So I asked Professor Schor to address some of these issues. The interview follows.
Elliott: Professor Schor: I have considerable sympathy for your main point, but readers have raised a number of questions about the feasibility of your proposals. Let me start with where we are now. My vision (and I don’t like it) is that machines are taking over almost all manual jobs. That means only people with some education (to run the machines) will get jobs and the less educated will not. A grim prospect.
Prof. Schor: You’re right that we are going through a wave of mechanization, which has also extended to white collar labor. The only way to make this work now is to reduce hours of work. Trying to grow our way out of technical-change induced unemployment is ecological suicide. We’re already producing more pollution than the climate, and planet, can tolerate. Historically, we reduce hours per year and over the lifetime to respond to technical change. For example, in the US and most other global North countries, annual hours fell between from 3000 in 1870 to under 2000 by 1973. And that’s a big part of the point, isn’t it? Economic progress gives us more time to live, rather than slave.
Elliott: OK, we can forget about our dysfunctional Congress, our burgeoning government debt, a stimulus package to create more jobs. But we have to face the fact that a lot of older people are going back to work because with recent stock market collapses, their retirement savings have diminished. This lack of savings is an incentive for people to work more. How do we turn all this around?
Prof. Schor: The current policy of austerity will only make things worse. And the most commonly cited alternative, federal stimulus can help, but only up to a point. There isn’t a political will for a large enough stimulus. More importantly, Republican want to cut taxes to stimulate the economy, and lower taxes will create fewer jobs than higher government expenditures. But the bigger point is that what I call “indiscriminate macro-policy,” Keynesian pump priming. This will have us spending money on things we don’t need, rather than investing in what we do need—clean energy, education, mass transit. On the labor market side, we need to do things which open up the labor market.
We could expand, rather than contract, social security eligibility. Smart countries with unemployment problems try to pull senior workers out of the economy. They don’t create incentives for them to work longer. We could give partial benefits for people to gradually reduce work hours as they get older.
Elliott: What you are saying makes a lot of sense. But in the age of CNBC talking heads and partisan economic policy wonks, nobody is listening. What sort of time frame do you have in mind for people to work less? Is it 50 years with bumps up and down along the way? And if so, do you see a decline over the last 50 years in the number of hours worked?
Prof. Schor: Shorter hours of work are possible at many levels–more schooling at the beginning of the worklife, four day workweeks, and then tapering off hours at the end of the work life. The key is to contract from where we are. From the 1970s until the crash, people who had jobs were putting in more than 200 more hours per year.
Elliott: I believe the “Parable of the Grand Inquisitor” appearing Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is the greatest statement on human nature ever written. In it, Jesus returns, saying he wants to give man his freedom. The Grand Inquisitor tells him to go away. He says man does not want freedom but instead ceremony and structure. As the influence of religion declines, jobs provide very important structure for humans. What do we do for humans to take the place of work for structure?
Prof. Schor: One of the most exciting new structures to cope with the disappearance of work is community. What do I mean by that? People are connecting locally, in resilience circles, time banks, local food groups, local governance, climate action plan groups, and the like. In the 21st century, local community can be what the workplace became in the 20th century.
The logic of what Professor Schor is advocating is so powerful that it deserves attention. And as she says, “smart countries” understand and are helping to facilitate less work. Who knows, it might not require planning. It might just happen.
I recently visited a retirement home to see a friend. He loves it. Plenty of things to do: painting, photography, knitting, TV broadcasting, etc. Each unit has its own kitchen, but the home also has restaurants. Four large buildings are connected, so you never have to go outside. He never feels lonely.
For me, it was quite chilling: everywhere you look, older people. With such high concentrations of older people, it was hard to resist the thought that the next step is death. Not something I want to be reminded of continually.
But The Grand Inquisitor was probably right: most humans need structure (and some ceremony). These retirement homes and the structures suggested by Professor Schor fill the bill.