09 February 2009

Working less -- the overlooked solution

As the economy worsens and unemployment increases, it is time to take yet another look at an overlooked approach to work that will maintain high employment while improving quality of life. I refer to shorter work times.

Early in the 19th century, people worked on average about 3600 hours a year -- 70 or 80-hour work weeks. Since then, workers have struggled to reduce working hours to a level compatible with the increasing ability of machines to do our work for us, to 60 hours a week early in the 20th century and to 40 by the 1960s. Despite working less, we prospered more, by replacing manpower with machine power.

Since the 1960s, however, despite extraordinary technological innovation, the average work week has hardly changed at all. Indeed, we are working harder than ever. In 1960, 70 per cent of families consisted of two adults with one working full time outside the home, the other full time inside the home -- two people, two jobs. Today, in most two-parent families, even those with small children, both parents work outside the home. But the home work still has to be done, so the situation now is two people with three jobs, or in the case of single-parent families, one person with two jobs. And of course many people, particularly salaried people, work more than the standard 40 hours, often in fear of losing their jobs if they don’t.

Our challenge during the current crisis is to increase time for the overemployed and increase work for the underemployed to create a balance of meaningful work for all. In other words, share the work. We can do this in various ways. Longer holidays, reducing overtime, mandating a four-day work week, are all possibilities.

The French, Germans and Scandinavians already work far fewer hours per year than North Americans do, yet enjoy a comparable prosperity. And of course they have more time for family, recreation, politics – whatever – to live fuller lives.

As far back as 1930, W. K. Kellogg, a truly visionary capitalist, went to a thirty-hour week by shortening the work day in his plants from eight hours to six in order to save jobs. Kellogg was later able to say, “The efficiency and morale of our employees is so increased, the accident and insurance rates are so improved, and the unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight.” Kellogg’s idea would be overdue today even if we weren't in the middle of an economic meltdown.

Everything to date in both the American stimulus plan and our federal budget has been about spending more – much, much more. And that may be necessary to keep as many people as possible employed. But we need also to hear about working less – much less – to keep as many people as possible employed. In the long run, this will be the best basket to put our eggs in.

1 comment:

  1. I've also heard a great suggestion that EI could "top up" workers whose hours had been cut back.

    So, instead of 25% of workers in a plant losing their jobs and then collecting EI, let's say all workers work 30 hours instead of 40, with the same amount of EI being spread evenly among each worker. They would have probably only a small decrease in salary, if any, and significantly more time with their families. Nobody would feel like a failure, as one often does when unemployed. Everyone is treated equally. To make it democratic, this plan could be presented to workers to vote on.