Working nine to four (saturday morning too much coffee edition)
One of the marked characteristics of modern times is the decline in average hours worked (graph, via Henk de Vos). But: beware! There is more to averages than meets the eye which, for students of economics, is more important than the latest fad about regressions and statistical significance – this is about contentional significance.
When real male wages started to increase after about 1880 (very large international differences, but the decline of grain prices after about 1880 boosted the process) female labour market participation first decreased, to increase again only in pretty recent times (say, the end of the fifties). Which enabled men to work less (male participation declined) and to work less hours… Anyway – don’t bother about future labour shortages. If only we start to watch less television (what do you think we do with all
these hours, this time, in Dutch) there are plenty of hours to work. Though to spend hours differently we have to change the way we use time.
1) Unpaid household labour declined too, because fertility declined and the ‘washing machine‘, the mechanisation of household labour. Using oil and natural gas to heat the house instead of coal and wood might however have been experienced as a larger change by housewives themselves, though for quite some time peat (and coal and wood?) was, by most people, only used for cooking, a warmer house was a collateral product (personal aside: it is great to see, using accounts from those seemingly utterly boring village groceries, how stuff like heating oil or coffee or (quote) ‘Everlasten shoes’ (a mass product competing with the village cobbler) spread all around Europe). Mind, however, that the decline of household labour also showed up as a fast and until fairly recently almost total collapse of paid household labour by servants, house maids etcetera. Well, I’m getting carried away, have to stop this thread.
2) After 2008 the neoliberal distopia, way down based upon ideas about a pre-nineteenth century economy with subservient labour, low productivity, low wages and a reserve army of labour and where more and more of total income is siphoned of as rents, including interest on mortgage loans, took hold of the minds of european politicians – at least when they decided about other countries. They do not agree with mister Piketty, it seems, but propose policies which enable lower wages and higher rents (read their stuff about Spain, especially when it comes to lower ‘wage mark-ups’ and higher so called ‘profits’). This, of course, led to the (temporary?) halt of the productivity increase juggernaut which, in the end, enabled the fortunate decline in working hours. Once, productivity will start to increase again. Economists can’t stop progress forever. But they might succeed for another ten or fifteen years or so and, consistent with their ideas about labour they will propose policies to increase labour supply in countries with about 25% unemployment like Spain and Greece (and, in fact, Italy as Italy has anomalous high ‘broad unemployment). Dear all, increasing the pension age is of course a wise thing to do. Work is not a bad thing, at least it does not have to be. It even can be good, surely for those over 65. But we will have to make it good – and making labour subservient is not the way to go. While, Apatosaurus ajax Marsh in the room, increasing the pension age is not really a policy priority when unemployment has recently increased to 26%. But at this moment the Troika seems to think otherwise, considering Greece.
3) There is this thing about the Social Media economy. Which is serious: thanks to Facebook, Tinder and related sites quite some dance halls and disco’s have gone broke while young people also started to drive less. Plannng your future has become quite a bit more efficient, thanks to these gadgets! While there are also not too many bookstores left, where I live. Will this lead to a lower supply of labour? I do use the internet to order groceries for an elderly family member, a possibility which some day will lead to less brick and mortar stores, but there still is somebody who brings them around…