MAKING THE CASE FOR A 32-HOUR WORK WEEK

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MAKING THE CASE FOR A 32-HOUR WORK WEEK

by Bill McGaughey

At the recent Take Back Your Time conference at Seattle University, I made a proposal to do a campaign to identify supporters of shorter working hours.  It was an announcement of an activity that I will be commencing soon and with which I need your help.   I'm writing this piece to convince you to join me in this campaign.  Here's why it's so important:

We simply must seek a substantial reduction in working hours in the near future. Few experts deny that continued automation and the introduction of more robots to replace human labor may well mean substantial unemployment in the future unless we push even faster economic growth or begin to share existing work.  But to expand production without limit in order to keep people working long hours is unsustainable on a finite planet.  Sharing and shortening work is the preferable solution and not solely for environmental reasons.  Not only would reduced work time increase the amount of free time for working men and women, it would reduce the supply of labor defined in worker-hours which, in turn, would restore balance between labor supply and demand in the free market.  As a result, wages would tend to rise.

This claim requires further discussion. The fundamental equation governing labor supply is:   Output = productivity x employment x average work hours.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been compiling such information about the US economy since the late 1940s.  Roughly speaking, labor productivity in the United States has increased by five times since then, employment has increased by 2.3 times, and average hours are 84% of the level in the mid 1940s. Output, then, is roughly 9 to 10 times what it was in the 1940s. Presumably the enlarged US economy indicates greater prosperity.  

However, not all output enriches personal life.  For example, the increased rate of incarceration in the United States - up from 300,000 persons in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2013 - may reduce unemployment, but does little to increase real national wealth.  Neither does the overemphasis upon medication in the healing process or the mania to educate young people expensively to enter the job market.  These “sacred cows” among our industries and occupations are grazing the economy to an unhealthy degree.

Think of it!  Agricultural employment now accounts for only 1.4 percent of total U.S. employment; and employment in manufacturing industries, less than 10 percent.  Some of the emerging industries and occupations claiming the lion’s share of U.S. employment include government services (16.1%), health-care services (13.6%), business and professional services (11.0%), educational services (9.5%), and hospitality services (9.0%).   While many of these services enhance our quality of life, too many are only make-work to keep people employed at the currently accepted forty hours per week. 

In my opinion, the American people do not need all these expensive and continually increasing commercialized services.  Instead, they need more free time--a boon to health, social connection, civic engagement, hobbies, personal food production, creative arts and other important activities which are now shortchanged by overwork. As Charles Sylvester pointed out at the conference, Benjamin Franklin believed long ago that Americans could "procure all the necessaries and comforts of life," from only four hours of labor a day.

We Americans could enjoy substantially increased free time - a full extra day of leisure each week - if we amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, now more than 75 years old, with respect to the standard workweek, lowering it from 40 hours to 32 hours.  The current legal framework already exists.  A simple change in the law is all that is required.

As the full moon seems so near but is so far away, so the goal of a 4-day workweek, deceptively close and attainable, has proven to be politically elusive. It has been on the horizon of political possibilities for so long that people doubt its day of fulfillment will ever come.  Many people think the issue is a loser.  But there are still a few fools around who believe the goal can be achieved, and I am one of them.  It’s a simple goal toward whose achievement which I will commit money and time. The time to do this is now. Fulfillment should not be further delayed.

I will not bore you with further lengthy economic arguments here to support shorter working hours.  The arguments are presented in some detail at my web site http://www.shorterworkweek.com. That site includes papers presented at the Seattle conference (item # 62) and also contains a link to the manuscript of my 1981 book, A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s, which explores the arguments supporting shorter hours in detail. While some of this information is outdated, the general propositions still apply. I would be happy to defend them against all naysayers.

I have been thinking of a direct mail campaign to identify supporters of this campaign but others have suggested that a website and an email campaign would be both less expensive and more effective.  What do you think?  Please send your suggestions to John de Graaf at jodg@comcast.net and he will forward them to me.  

In summary, my presentation was a bit different than most others at the “Take Back Your Time” conference in that it was essentially a call to action rather than a scholarly exploration.  Like increased vacation time - also a highly worthy objective along with paid family and sick leave -the shorter workweek campaign contemplates a reduction in working hours, but one which involves a much greater amount of time each year.  

But let's not let the more ambitious agenda be a barrier to seeking this goal.  We need to throw ourselves into this worthy project with full energy and enthusiasm, whether we do it by direct mail or email, supporting each other’s efforts.  There is no other substitute in achieving the victory.

Bill McGaughey of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been working for shorter work-time for several decades, including a US Senate campaign promoting the concept.  With the late and famous Senator Eugene McCarthy, he was the author of Nonfinancial Economics, a book promoting the concept of reduced work.