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Work to Live

Most economists have come to believe that we are likely in for a solid decade of high unemployment and underemployment.  There just doesn’t appear to be enough work to go around.  That, by itself, is why I believe that this period of economic history will eventually become known as a Depression – it’s about an excess of capacity to produce stuff and services that has to be absorbed.  Getting out of these doldrums is going to take fundamental changes in how we work that are probably best understood by how we got to where we are today.  Predicting the future may be hard, but we can at least understand where we’ve been and go from there.

The first problem we have is a statement that I think is actually quite wrong – that there isn’t enough work to go around.  In her 1992 book “The Overworked American”, Juliet Schor noted that Americans were working 163 more hours per year than they did in 1967.  Joe Robinson saw this trend continue in his 2003 book “Work to Live”, noting that this hit 182 hours by the year 2000.  With vacations and other time off that takes the working year down to about 1920 hours a years, that number curious works out to 10% more time at work – about our headline unemployment rate today.

Why isn’t this work more evenly distributed? Part of the problem has to be the overhead per employee, the fixed costs in terms of benefits, training, recruiting, and managing each employee at a company.  Bringing that down is always going to be the easiest way to reduce the workload on employees in companies hellbent on running “lean and mean”.  But there is obviously more to it than that.

As we’ve moved towards a more service and knowledge based economy, the skills and smarts of any given worker has only become more valuable.  Knowing the customers, products, and systems of a big corporation requires a lot of flexibility that crosses traditional lines of expertise and requires cross-training.  As beneficial as these changes are, the initial wave has probably only compounded the problem of separating the labor force into the have-jobs and the have-not-jobs – the experienced people who’ve been around are just too valuable.

Like any similar economic downturn, it’s entirely possible that we’re simply going through a painful restructuring that will make us stronger and more productive.  The question remains as to how we get through the next decade – and if it really have to take that long to see it through.

When confronted with an excess of capacity in a manufacturing economy, the architects of the New Deal under FDR realized that the most important thing they could do was to increase demand.  That’s not going to be an option for an economic struggling to digest a generation’s worth of fundamental changes in how and why people work.  When the problem is one of distribution of work, as it seems to be, it probably makes more sense to find ways to limit the output per employee.  That’s not a simple thing to do.

This naturally gets us back to “Work to Live”, the book that Robinson intended as a kind of manifesto for the Work to Live Campaign.  The short version is that people who do have jobs need to, more or less, refuse to keep working so many hours that their jobs define their time on this planet at the exclusion of family and leisure time.  That’s not an easy thing to do.  But along with a national focus on reducing the overhead per employee, it might be the most important thing for our government to support both through law and education if we are going to make this next decade one of prosperity on the other side rather than one long uphill struggle.

How we got to where we are today is not hard to understand – those with jobs are being squeezed more than ever before, while those without jobs are simply left out in the open to brave the winds of change on their own.  Getting through the storm will take some cooperation, at least socially.  What say you about getting through this?

13 thoughts on “Work to Live

  1. I think that most of what you’re talking about has to do with the decline of Unions in the same period. I don’t see how you can have some kind of movement that changes how people work without Unions either. That’s not going to be something that we get back overnight so I think that the decade of high unemployment is definitely going to happen pretty much no matter what.

  2. Yes I agree – a thnk tan in the UK proposed that everyone should work roughly 16 to 21 hours per week thus sharing out the jobs, the pay etc. In an ideal world great idea – job share people working the sgifts/hours that suite them. But then you stumble nto the sticky patches, like rent will private landlords adjust their greed accodingly – even social landlords? The price of basic goods would these go down or remain at the same level? So we may have more free time for life and family, but less pay and therfore less money to enable us to enjoy our extra free time. It could be argued that we dont need money to take full advantage of the extra free time. But there are many strands to get5 right before such a proposalto share out the working hours ever takes off – shame really.

  3. I think you are on to something, but missed an important point. There’s a big difference between salaried and hourly workers.

    For salaried workers, reducing the number of hours will not change the income one bit. A company would have to employ more people to do the same amount of work which increases the amount of jobs and money going into the economy.

    For hourly people fewer hours is less pay, & less money into the economy. That isn’t as good.

    When you are talking about salaried employees it comes down to Wall Street and the demand for ever increasing profits on the backs of their workers. At some point it comes down to whether you want your free time now or money in your 401k. As long as we obsess about the stock market salaried workers will just take the hit and think they are getting ahead, even if they aren’t.

  4. Jim: That sounds about right on, but it does mean we’re just screwed to me.

    Gwei: That’s exactly what I’m talking about – distributing the work we have better. There has to be a way to do that so that everyone has a piece of the pie and we don’t have a ton of government involvement – but I’m not exactly sure that a socialist redistribution isn’t going to be in the cards if we don’t do something smart soon.

    Dale: You really nailed this one. There’s a LOT to think about in your brief comment. Salaried people might be willing to take the bargain they have in large part because of demographics – the Baby Boom is nearing retirement age and the kids have left home (or are more or less on their own though they live in the basement). Perhaps what we need to do more than anything is to push them out of the workforce as fast as we can and get jobs into the hands of young people who would choose free time and the ability to raise families?

    You guys are great. I knew this was a partially baked idea when I put this post up, and you’ve all added a lot already. This is what social media is all about! Thanks!

  5. This is IMHO one of your best pieces ever. Clearly written etc. etc. Perhaps you could have footnoted overhead /unit but you did it in your own way (you may I’m not always fond of links) I prefer brief explanations below the page.
    From my level I was talking to a coworker ($12/hr limited benefits) the other day and he is struggling financially. He laments the lack of overtime (sometimes 16 hrs/day). It would be easy for some upper middle class individual consuming unit (perhaps a STRIB employee or some other high bucked ***hole to pick away at his lifestyle but the high bucked individual has such a high margin for error in their consumption lifestyles plus they get lower interest on their mortgage. Whats with that old fashioned credit unions perhaps the first 50k on a house should be universal not prorated as you’re talking survival not luxury. the high bucked individual gets a newer car every 6 years vs. older cars every 12 years etc. etc.
    Schor wrote a great book and their is this american conspiracy of silence around it. Same with J Rifkin’s “the end of work” where the writer has multiple suggestions.
    By the way I get 7 vacation days, 2 sick days. No 3 day weekends ‘cept for Thanksgiving and the occasional July ( and I usually end up bidding for overtime.
    Anyway I know some of my anxiety has trickled down to my 17 year old son regarding college and career choices. By the way I’d like you to write about engineering (and perhaps your personal experience with it) SMILES!

  6. The point that I most like to emphasize when thinking about this issue is that the work distribution has been tried before (believe Juliet Schor cites this example) during the Great Depression. When employers cut back from 40 hours to 30 hours for a standard workweek, the per hour efficiency actually went up! Having more time for rest & leisure actually made people more productive. Granted, it was a Depression so it was just good policy to spread the work out.

    I don’t anticipate we’d ever go to a 20 hour work-week, maybe a nice fantasy, but I think 32 hours would be a great start! Also, for some of us who earn only a paltry 2 weeks a year of vacation time, what if we had the option to take a 2% pay cut for each week of vacation we wanted to “buy”? I would happily cut 6-8% from my pay to get 3-4 more weeks off! And my employer would benefit from having a more fully engaged, well-rested employee!

    The hourly worker problem is still an issue but if the overall productivity increases, then I would hope the adjustment in wages would be upward.

    For anyone who doesn’t understand the “overhead” problem that is a barrier to going in the right direction here, they need to read the link to your post to understand the further dimensions of this problem.

    This is an issue near & dear to my heart, having done a lot of contract and temp work in the past and working years without a single week of vacation. I have no doubt that this will be a growing problem in the future as we all have more of a tendency to be in contract or temp roles.

  7. Hey I dig all your comments. Jim I think the few unions left (I wish they were growing) need a bigger stake/ownership in the decisions even if it comes at the cost of a slightly lower compensation package. If history serves me correctly in the ’60’s the unions gave away some of their voice in exchange for slightly higher packages. I’ve seen some very good and some very bad union decisions lately. Generally I think their bias is towards the older established worker (who often exercises their voice more) at the expense of the younger ones. On the public side there is still this push for packages that are outstripping the average buttkicked worker. Though attempts have been made to protect jobs it is as though they want their candy (packages) without having to pay for it i.e. protecting younger workers at the expense of their own. We have unfortunately through 60 years of television advertising and plane travel come to be a very individualistic society.

  8. Is this your first blog!? I’m pretty sure I remember you from a while back..used to read your old blog regularly. Not sure if I’m thinking of the same person though!

  9. Recent American history would undoubtedly surprise Karl Marx. I don’t know what he would have made of middle managers (i.e. salaried) and small business owners working some of the longest hours of all groups. Unfortunately, one trend would not surprise – the long trend of workers’ wages rising above the rate of inflation ended several years ago.

    Erik, since you were fishing for a forum, I thought I’d bring two other points up. 1)When hourly workers are in an environment where the boss is living at his/her desk, asking for quality of life time becomes awkward. 2) Monday’s New York Times carried a cover story of a Chinese worker (comrade?) who committed suicide after 286 hours of work at $1/hr in the previous month! http://nyti.ms/a86zNo

  10. Bruce you are right on. The Bush administration wanted to change the rules on what constituted a salaried worker in order to increase worker and company flexiblity. They would have taken away some overtime provision for nurses and had wierd comp rules for sales worker. hey let’s work 60 hour weeks in December and cut you to twenty in January when everyone else is too pooped to celebrate. GRRR.

  11. Bruce, I completely agree that this would have Marx in a fit. People working long hours not for pay but for the possibility of maybe, one day, getting ahead is a bit strange at best.

    I think the main deal is that we have to get Baby Boomers to start retiring as soon as we can, for a lot of reasons.

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