Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The World Can Afford to Shrink The Workweek

Interestingly, workers are not ready for the freedom that a shrinking workweek may entail.  For many the fear is "if I'm not commuting to and from work daily or earning a better job title, then who am I?"- an existential crisis.  The same type of fear that makes even wealthy people hate losing their job - rather than embrace the opportunities for a newer freer life, they're just upset because they want, more than anything zen you can think up, to keep in the game, so to speak. The job gives them meaning and order.

It is also true that many, particularly the poorest, need the jobs because they absolutely need the income.  Employment creates a pathway, particularly for the poorest people, to scramble out of poverty into the realm of possibility.

Employment creates a pathway for the poorest NATIONS also, and this is why it must remain a pillar of economic policy in Nigeria and several other developing nations - massive employment gives the population something to do that is not destructive, it may sometimes give the people a skills ramp too so they can move to higher-value production, and - very importantly - it earns income in a granular way that goes direct to the people and fosters democracy rather than through a central source that then fosters inequality and crime and war in the extreme scenario.  

Anyway, here are two comments on the need to shrink the workweek instead of moaning endlessly about unemployment:

Vivek Wadhwa, in We're Heading into a jobless future, no matter what the government does (The Washington Post):
"...Summers is right. Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food, and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores. There won’t be much work for human beings. Self-driving cars will be commercially available by the end of this decade and will eventually displace human drivers—just as automobiles displaced the horse and buggy...
Summers is wrong, however, in his belief that governments can do as they did in the industrial age: create “enough work for all who need work for income, purchasing power and dignity.” They can barely keep up with the advances that are happening in technology, let alone develop economic policies for employment.  
The only solution that I see is a shrinking work week. We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today. And with the prices of necessities and of what we today consider luxury goods dropping exponentially, we may not need the entire population to be working. There is surely a possibility for social unrest because of this; but we could also create the utopian future we have long dreamed of, with a large part of humanity focused on creativity and enlightenment."

Larry Page, in this famous, and very highly recommended, chat that also features Google co-founder Sergey Brin and venture-capitalist Vinod Khosla.  
"VinodKhosla The vast majority of employment shifted from farming to only needing about 2-percent of the U.S. workforce. That happened between 1900 and the year 2000. I see the beginnings of that happening again with the rapid acceleration the next 10, 15, 20 years.
LarryPage I totally believe we should be living in a time of abundance, like Peter Diamandis' book. If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy - housing, security, opportunities for your kids - anthropologists have been identifying these things. It's not that hard for us to provide those things. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small. I'm guessing less than 1-percent at the moment. So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true. I do think there's a problem that we don't recognize that. I think there's also a social problem that a lot of people aren't happy if they don't have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. We need to feel like you're needed, wanted and have something productive to do. But I think the mix with that and the industries we actually need and so on are-- there's not a good correspondence. That's why we're busy destroying the environment and other things, maybe we don't need to be doing. So I'm pretty worried. Until we figure that out, we're not going to have a good outcome. One thing, I was talking to Richard Branson about this. They don't have enough jobs in the UK. He's been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time. So at least, the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job. And it's a slightly greater cost for employers. I was thinking, the extension of that is you have global unemployment or widespread unemployment. You just reduce work time. Everyone I've asked-- I've asked a lot of people about this. Maybe not you guys. But most people, if I ask them, 'Would you like an extra week of vacation?' They raise their hands, 100-percent of the people. 'Two weeks vacation, or a four-day work week?' Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they'd also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you add slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.
SergeyBrin I will quibble a little bit. I don't think that in the near term, the need for labor is going away. It gets shifted from one place to another, but people always want more stuff or more entertainment or more creativity or more something."
Watch and/or read the complete fireside chat and transcript here.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...


t said...

"To Work Better, Work Less". Read the full article on The Atlantic.
It seems silly that many work long hours simply for the sake of having worked long hours. Perhaps the reason people overwork even when it is not for “reward, punishment, or obligation” is because it holds great social cachet. Busyness implies hard work, which implies good character, a strong education, and either present or future affluence. The phrase, “I can’t; I’m busy,” sends a signal that you’re not just an homme sérieux, but an important one at that.

There is also a belief in many countries, the United States especially, that work is an inherently noble pursuit. Many feel existentially lost without the driving structure of work in their life—even if that structure is neither proportionally profitable nor healthy in a physical or psychological sense.

Everyone would likely agree with Aristotle that “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” The motivation for employees to work hard is the carrot of a relaxing retirement. Yet this cause-and-effect often gets flipped such that we fit our lives into our work, rather than fitting our work into our lives. The widespread belief that happiness and life satisfaction can be found exclusively through hard work is at a heart more a management myth meant to motivate workers than it is a philosophical truism.
Working too much is at best, pointless, and at worst, actively harmful. Overwork dictates our physical health, psychological health, and our time with family, and often it is rooted in our own desire to ennoble the act of working, to feel productive (even if we’re not being productive), and to be able to tell other people, “I’m busy,” as a means of social prestige.

t said...

Another great example: Self-driving vehicles obliterating driving jobs, Robots obliterating many more jobs, and in response people are worried not excited? (What will happen to employment, what will happen to our need to work? Oh no. )
Gimme a break. Cut the workweek / workday already. 10 hours / week = Full time. I'm ready.

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