Americans Need to Work Less

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

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

\r\nThe current discourse is saying, number one, cut the deficit, which will\r\n further undermine demand and job growth. Plus its view is, "Well, let’s\r\n just try and get the economy growing and the jobs will some how trickle\r\n down to the people who need them."  That’s not the way mass \r\nunemployment, which is what we’ve got today has ever been solved. And to\r\n add to that, there’s a dimension of this that hasn’t been recognized in\r\n the conversation that this country is having, which is that we have \r\ncreated a powerful barrier to job creation in the way we’ve structured \r\nhours of work.  For about 75, almost 100 years, beginning in the late \r\n19th century, the country took a significant portion of its economic \r\nprogress, of its productivity in the form of shorter hours of work.  So,\r\n it grew, it had increasing income, but also workers got shorter \r\nschedules.  We got Saturdays off, we got eventually moved down to \r\nsomething like an eight-hour workday, the concept of a 40-hour work \r\nweek.  Now that’s a completely normal thing to happen and all of the \r\nwealthy countries went on this path. 

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

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

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

\r\nSo this brings us back to the question of time use.  If people are able \r\nto work fewer hours in the labor market, it means they can take that \r\nfreed-up time and begin meeting needs in new ways which reduce their \r\nnecessity to depend on that market.  That market, which as I argue is \r\ngoing to be less stable and less lucrative.  So, for example, in the \r\nbook I look at people who are involved in a variety of things called \r\nhigh-tech self-providing, but basically making and doing for themselves \r\noutside of formal market structure.  They might be growing vegetables, \r\nthey might be raising chickens, they may be generating electricity on a \r\nsmall scale off the grid, they may have solar collectors on their roof, \r\nor a backyard windmill. They may be involved in sharing schemes so they \r\ndon’t have to lay out as much money to get appliances or cars or other \r\nforms of transports because they may be sharing with their neighbors and\r\n creating economic interdependencies that are going to serve them well \r\nwhen times are a little bit rocky.

Recorded on June 2, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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.

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