Home > Uncategorized > The six-hour work day: Preparing for the Attack of the Robots

The six-hour work day: Preparing for the Attack of the Robots

from Dean Baker

We all have heard the stories about how the robots are going to take our jobs. The line is that innovations in computer technology will make robots ever more sophisticated, allowing them displace a rapidly growing number of workers. This could leave large numbers of workers with nothing to do, implying a massive amount of long-term unemployment.

There are two basic problems with this story. The first is a logical problem. The story of worker displacement by technology is not new, it goes back hundreds of years and it is ordinarily considered to be a good thing. This is what we call productivity growth. It means that workers can produce more goods and services in the same amount of time. This is the basis of rising wages and living standards.

If we see rapid productivity growth, as robots allow for the same output with fewer workers, this should allow the remaining workers to be paid more for each hour of work. This will allow them to spend more money, creating more demand in other sectors, which will allow displaced workers to be re-employed elsewhere.

Of course we have not seen workers getting the benefits of productivity growth in higher pay in recent years. This is due to policies and institutional changes that undermine workers’ bargaining power.  For example, trade policy has deliberately put manufacturing workers in competition with low paid workers in the developing world. The Federal Reserve Board routinely raises interest rates to slow job growth when it fears that workers are getting too much bargaining power and could possibly get inflationary wage increases. And, lower unionization rates mean that workers are less effective in demanding higher pay from employers.

For these reasons, most workers have not gotten their share of the gains from productivity growth, but there is another problem with the robots displacing workers story. Rather than robots leading to a massive surge in productivity, in recent years productivity growth has been unusually slow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual productivity growth has averaged less than 0.6 percent since 2010. This compares to an average rate of 3.0 percent in the Internet boom years from 1995–2005 or 2.8 percent in the long post-World War II boom from 1947–1973. Even in the years of the productivity slowdown, from 1973–1995, had a 1.4 percent annual rate of growth, more than twice the recent pace. In short, there have not been many gains to share.

Sweden is experimenting with a possible solution to both problems: slow productivity growth and ensuring that workers get their share of the benefits. Many businesses across the country are experimenting with six-hour work days. There is some evidence that workers are more productive per hour working six-hour days rather than the traditional eight-hour days. A growing number of Swedish companies are testing this view by cutting back their work hours.

If this reduction in work hours proves successful, it will address both sides of the problem. It would first mean that we would see a surge in productivity growth as workers produced more hour in their six-hour days than in their eight-hour days. This would justify higher hourly pay. The second part of the story is that by reducing the average amount of work-time per worker, we would be opening up more jobs.

This point is straightforward. If there is demand for the same number of labor hours, and the average worker puts in fewer hours, there will be more demand for workers. This is a way to sustain higher levels of employment, thereby ensuring that workers have more bargaining power. With short enough workweeks/work years we can keep the economy near full employment and make sure that workers have the necessary bargaining power to get their share of the gains from growth.

For these reasons, the six-hour day sounds like a very intriguing idea, in addition to the fact that it will give people more time to do things they enjoy.

  1. Paul Davidson
    October 19, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    problem with the statement: “This point is straightforward. If there is demand for the same number of labor hours, and the average worker puts in fewer hours, there will be more demand for workers.” If workers are more productive per hour, why should there be the ” demand for the same number of labor hours? This will occur only if aggregate market demand for the products increase at the same rate as the productivity growth. How can we be sure this will occur???

    • October 19, 2015 at 10:32 pm

      What does “more productive per hour” mean?

      One of the big problems this discussion encounters is that the yardstick of “productivity” is variable. Are we referring to physical output or to the dollar value of that output and, if it is the latter, how responsive are price, supply and demand to the changing technological coefficients?

  2. October 19, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    “This point is straightforward. If there is demand for the same number of labor hours, and the average worker puts in fewer hours, there will be more demand for workers.”

    Admittedly, the point would seem straightforward. However, “demand for the same number of labor hours” is precisely the all-else-being-equal assumption that has been scorned for two centuries by journalists, economists, employers’ lobby groups and right-wing propagandists — even as they put forward various other all-else-being-equal assumptions to refute it. This is the claim of an alleged “lump-of-labor fallacy” that I have researched to death.

    The lesson I have learned from my investigation is that when an assertion is so tenaciously reiterated, one needs to look for some other motivation than faulty logic or mere ignorance. Perhaps the conviction masks another, repressed, conviction. It thus may be read as a kind of covert confession.

    The point that is perhaps not so seemingly straightforward is that of cost-shifting, as theorized by K. William Kapp based largely on John Maurice Clark’s analysis of overhead costs. Unlike Marx’s analysis of surplus value as surplus labour time, Kapp’s and Clark’s analysis relied on no substantive labour theory of value, Clark having been, after all, the son of John Bates Clark.

    Putting it as simply as I can, I would view the perennial push-back against the seemingly obvious remedy of shorter working time as a smokescreen for the fact that “externalities are not market failures but cost-shifting successes.” To fix the problem would be to take something away from those whose profit depends on perpetuating the problem.

    I am all for reducing working time but I think it is essential to first acknowledge that it was no accident or oversight that previous progress toward shorter hours was arrested and thus further progress is not likely to be achieved by pointing out what a good, intriguing idea it would be.

  3. Rhonda Kovac
    October 20, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    The displacement of work from humans to machines is increasing and will continue to increase as technology advances. This means a progressively greater ratio of machine labor to human labor. Since employment is the main means through which most people get income, it’s hard to imagine such a trend redounding to the ordinary person’s advantage.

    And tweaking working hours seems hardly likely to do anything much, so long as the laws of corporate wealth ownership pipe profits overwhelmingly to those at the top. Mr. Baker should instead be advocating for changing those laws, so that the general population gets its share of the productivity gains from technological advances. Then we won’t have to worry about robotization hurting workers.

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