Americans Need to Work Less

If people are able to work fewer hours in the labor market, it means they can take that freed up time and begin meeting their needs in new ways that can, in turn, reduce their dependentce on that market.
  • Transcript


Question: How can we address the current problem of high unemployment?

Juliet Schor: We’ve got 26 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, marginally attached in the labor force.  We’d have to be generating half a million jobs a month for almost two years just to get back to where we were before the crash.  That’s a level of job creation that is absolutely unrealistic and the current discourse about how to get there is woefully inadequate. 

The current discourse is saying, number one, cut the deficit, which will further undermine demand and job growth. Plus its view is, "Well, let’s just try and get the economy growing and the jobs will some how trickle down to the people who need them."  That’s not the way mass unemployment, which is what we’ve got today has ever been solved. And to add to that, there’s a dimension of this that hasn’t been recognized in the conversation that this country is having, which is that we have created a powerful barrier to job creation in the way we’ve structured hours of work.  For about 75, almost 100 years, beginning in the late 19th century, the country took a significant portion of its economic progress, of its productivity in the form of shorter hours of work.  So, it grew, it had increasing income, but also workers got shorter schedules.  We got Saturdays off, we got eventually moved down to something like an eight-hour workday, the concept of a 40-hour work week.  Now that’s a completely normal thing to happen and all of the wealthy countries went on this path. 

We would never have been able to reabsorb all of the labor that gets displaced in the ordinary operation of the capitalist economy if we hadn’t done that because productivity growth is always generating reduced demand for labor, we have industrial restructuring that’s going on all the time.  Some products get popular; others decline, so we’ve got to have a way of reabsorbing the people who are laid off in the normal course of the market economy.  If you don’t have reductions in hours, it’s almost impossible to keep your population fully employed.

Which means that when we try to create a job in this country, we’ve got to generate somewhere between sort of 10% and 20% more revenue in sales for every job than European countries have to.  So, it’s a real barrier to job creation.  If we had shorter hours of work, if we were able to take productivity growth, overtime in the form of shorter hours, we could re-employ those 26 million under- and unemployed people much more rapidly.
What would be some of the benefits of this newfound time?

Juliet Schor: For individuals who want to really secure their economic futures, I think where the most important principles going forward is going to be diversification.  Diversification of your income sources of how you meet your daily needs, and diversification in terms of where you invest.  And this gets us back to that principle of what is wealth, and a broader notion of wealth which includes wealth in the planet, it includes money wealth, of course, but also wealth in people.  If we invest in relationships with other people, that becomes a source of wealth. 

So this brings us back to the question of time use.  If people are able to work fewer hours in the labor market, it means they can take that freed-up time and begin meeting needs in new ways which reduce their necessity to depend on that market.  That market, which as I argue is going to be less stable and less lucrative.  So, for example, in the book I look at people who are involved in a variety of things called high-tech self-providing, but basically making and doing for themselves outside of formal market structure.  They might be growing vegetables, they might be raising chickens, they may be generating electricity on a small scale off the grid, they may have solar collectors on their roof, or a backyard windmill. They may be involved in sharing schemes so they don’t have to lay out as much money to get appliances or cars or other forms of transports because they may be sharing with their neighbors and creating economic interdependencies that are going to serve them well when times are a little bit rocky.

Recorded on June 2, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman