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Shorter Work-Time Can Help In the Transition

Apr 22, 2015 | News & Updates

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In the not-too distant future we can expect to see a rapid increase in structural unemployment as a result of increasing substitution of technology—including sophisticated robots—for human labor. A massive shift to new energy technologies can, in the short run, substitute for many jobs lost in the dirty fuel industries we must, and will, phase out.

An additional medium-term jobs policy to soften the transition to clean energy for vulnerable groups, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and supported primarily by income from carbon taxes, should provide jobs in communities most impacted by the extractive industries by putting large numbers of young people to work in environmental restoration projects—rehabilitating areas damaged by mountaintop removal, for example.
But ultimately, the only real answer for addressing structural unemployment and protecting the environment lies elsewhere. Continued economic growth in rich countries such as the United States is increasingly unsustainable and limited by resource reduction. A central task for progressives is to return to the call for work-sharing and shorter work-time that characterized pre-World War II America.

Shorter work-time offers multiple benefits in addition to opening jobs to those who do not have them:

  • It can reduce the unhealthy stress of overwork, which plays an important role in heart disease, hypertension, mental health issues and other health problems.
  • It allows greater time for family and social connections, building of community ties and important local economy networks and food systems, and active citizenship.
  • It provides an additional partial solution for climate change.  Jorgen Larsson and his colleagues at the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden have found that a ten percent reduction in working hours results in a nine percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It tightens the labor market putting upward pressure on wages.
  • It leads to greater well-being and happiness.  The world’s happiest countries are nations with the world’s shortest working hours—Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, for example.  The Netherlands, which has the world’s shortest working hours and excellent public policies promoting well-remunerated part-time work, also has its happiest and most fortunate children and parents, according to a 2013 UNICEF report.

Shorter work-time has important historical precedents, including Senate passage of a 30-hour workweek bill in 1933 and the W.K. Kellogg Company’s successful 30-hour workweek experiment prior to the Second World War. Germany actually decreased its unemployment levels during the recent recession, using a shorter work-time policy called Kurzarbeit.

There is new interest in the idea of shorter work-time even among corporate leaders. Google’s Larry Page has suggested a four-day, 32 hour workweek, is pushing for a national paid vacation law, and the Harvard Business School suggests that shorter work-time increases worker productivity in creativity.

Karl Marx once wrote that the “prerequisite” for worker freedom and well-being is the “shortening of the working day” and that “a nation is truly rich when its workers work six hours a day instead of twelve.” Feminist writers including Kathi Weeks and Nichole Shippen argue that a politics of time should be advanced by progressives. Such a strategy must be combined with demands for higher minimum and median wages, but we should actively mobilize support for shorter work-time.

Americans work some of the longest hours in the industrial world. They desperately need shorter workweeks, longer vacations, family and sick leave and options to choose part-time work that pays a living wage.




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