Home > Uncategorized > Shorter workweeks will defeat the robots

Shorter workweeks will defeat the robots

from Dean Baker

More than eight years after the start of the Great Recession, our labor market is far from recovering by most measures. At 5 percent, the current unemployment rate is not very different from its pre-recession level, but the main reason it is so low is that millions of people have given up looking for work and dropped out of the labor force. These people are no longer counted as being unemployed.

And contrary to what is often claimed, this is not a story of retiring baby boomers. The percentage of the prime age population (people between the ages of 25-54) that is working is down by 2 full percentage points from its pre-recession level. This translates into 2.5 million people who have given up looking for work at an age where they should be at the peak of their working career. That looks like pretty solid evidence of a weak labor market.

There are two ways to deal with a situation in which the number of people who want to work exceeds the number of jobs. The first is to increase demand in the economy, thereby increasing the demand for workers. We could in principle do this with increased government spending, but people don’t like budget deficits.

Reducing the size of the trade deficit would also increase demand, but this requires that our politicians make trade deficits a priority, which is not likely.

Some politicians claim that they have a magic formula that will cause companies to go on an investment spree. Unfortunately, the magic seems to work only in the elections, never once they are in office. 

If we can’t increase the demand for labor, we could go the other route and share the amount of work available more evenly. This can be done through a variety of mechanisms, such as shorter workweeks, mandated vacations, paid sick days, and paid family leave. The idea is that we would get most workers to put in less time on the job, thereby creating demand for more workers.

That shouldn’t sound like a strange concept. It was exactly this sort of thinking that got us the 40-hour workweek back in 1938. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay time and half if they required workers to put in more than a 40-hour week.

There were people at the time who pronounced the law a disaster and job killer, but the facts disagreed. The economy was lifted out of the Great Depression by the spending associated with World War II. We then had the three most prosperous decades in the country’s history as we saw strong wage and productivity growth accompanied by low unemployment.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was part of a steady progression toward shortening work time as the country got wealthier. Unfortunately, it was also pretty much the end of this progression. Since expensive nonwage benefits like health care insurance and pensions were largely provided as fixed cost per worker, employers decided they would rather require more hours per worker than hire more workers. As a result, the 40-hour workweek was largely frozen in place.

This makes the United States an outlier internationally. Workers in other wealthy countries put in many fewer hours on average than do workers in the United States. To take one prominent example, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average number of hours worked in Germany is almost 25 percent less than the average for the United States. This has helped push Germany’s unemployment rate down to 4 percent. And, unlike the United States, the share of the population in Germany with jobs is far above its pre-recession level.

We cannot, of course, make our economy a carbon copy of Germany, but we can pass laws requiring paid time off for family leave and sick days, as many states and cities have already done. In Germany, workers are guaranteed six weeks a year of paid vacation. We can start at two or three. And, we can restructure our unemployment insurance system to encourage firms to reduce hours with work sharing rather than layoff workers.

Technology is supposed to be about making our lives better. An important way in which it does this is by reducing the number of hours that we have to spend working so that we can have more time to be with our family or enjoy other pursuits. There is a great fear across the country that robots will take our jobs. If we correctly structure the economy, robots will give us more free time, and that will be good.

See article on original site

  1. originalsandwichman
    June 13, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    Thanks to Dean Baker for this.

    The “counterpoint” to Dean’s piece was by Omar al-Ubaydli, affiliated with the Mercatus Center and George Mason University. At the core of al-Ubaydli’s rejection of shorter working time was his claim that proponents of work-sharing believe there is a fixed amount of work to be done. That is a 236-year old talking point and can readily be shown to be untrue, unfounded and rote. I wrote to al-Ubaydli proposing an ethical debate about the lump-of-labor-fallacy myth and was delighted to receive a reply. My “open letter” to Omar, his reply and a longer piece giving context to the exchange are all posted at EconoSpeak, with links to the exchange provided in the longer essay, “An Ethical Debate about Robots, Shorter Workweeks and Unemployment”:


    But the argument isn’t just about robots, workweeks and unemployment. At the core of my critique of the l-o-l-f myth is an examination of the fundamental confusion in economics between ideas of aggregate quantities and of proportions.

  2. June 14, 2016 at 5:23 am

    I won’t and cannot blame all of this screwed up mess on economists alone. But they certainly did not and are not now helping to fix the problem. Economists and others equate work with productivity with a satisfying life, and then sum it all up with the notion of payment in cash. From anthropological and historical perspectives work is first about helping your collective (nation, society, etc.) Such work gives a sense of value, of worth, of making a contribution. That completes the circle of the relationships that make human collective life possible. Some might say “modern” society makes such arrangements obsolete. If that’s the case then human collective life is obsolete and human extinction ever nearer. The biggest error of modern society and economics, and one that threatens the future of our species is the notion now embedded in our culture that work is performed for compensation, that the major battle of our lives is between “workers” who always want more compensation and those who pay the compensation who are always looking to reduce their “labor” costs, and that society will be somehow better off for all of this. Apart from wrecking the physical environment on which our survival as a species depends and eviscerating our mutual dependence on one another this new culture/society has bred a whole new “social” science that claims to explain all of this. We are literally extinguishing ourselves.

  3. June 14, 2016 at 5:28 am

    Yes a reduced hour work week spreads the jobs. And with this goes pride of citizenship and positive sense of place.

    Now we are beginning to discuss qualitative growth. Quantitative is limited to one Earth. Quality can grow to infinity.

  4. June 14, 2016 at 9:16 am
  5. Rhonda Kovac
    June 17, 2016 at 6:33 am

    Baker’s alternatives, “increase the demand” or “share the work”, are limited and do not get at the root of the problem–which is that robots (and other technical advancements) are displacing human labor and will increasingly continue to do so.

    The real reason ordinary people are suffering from this displacement is that precious little of the wealth generated from its increased productivity is going to them. Rather, the great proportion of that wealth is piped to the wealthy (through unfair supervening rules of wealth ownership).

    If instead these rules were changed and wealth went more fairly and evenly into the general society, ordinary people would get a boost, rather than have to claw their way back up from the depths into which they are being cast.

    • June 17, 2016 at 11:41 am

      Capitalism has done a great deal of social damage. In 600 BCE Greek city-states went to war frequently. The armies consisted of citizen soldiers who fought in phalanxes (protective formations). There were many wars but few battles, casualties were generally low, and city government and commerce was not severely disrupted. The war machines that came later changed all this. The machines reduced the need for citizens to fight in the army and along with other technological changes reduced the need for some crafts persons and made slave markets less profitable. But the Polis did not allow these changes to impoverish citizens, hamper democratic governance, or develop a permanent wealthy class. The leaders of each Polis recognized that being a member of and participating in a community was the basis for not just survival but also prosperity and intellectual and physical achievement. It is this recognition and the community it supported that capitalism took away.

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