December 17, 2008

32-Hour Work Week is on The Way

Search for "32-hour work week" on Google today and you'll find about 15,000 entries. Google "40-hour work week" and you'll find about 435,000 entries. Lets get those search result numbers for the 32-hour work week to go up. Below I describe a possible path to a 32-hour work week for most people that would also motivate universal health care.

A friend and I were discussing the failing economic paradigm, which led me to describe the huge loss in our standard of living over the past few decades. It generally goes unrecognized. When I was a kid "dads" worked and "moms" maintained the homestead. Then, moms started entering the workforce driven both by interest and economic need. Now, it's a given that both parents in a traditional family must work to maintain the middle class living standard. Single parent families struggle to get by. Again, we've witnessed a huge loss in our standard of living. Beyond this obvious perspective, the numbers are documented.

But there is a contradiction. Automation of production has reduced the workforce need. There aren't enough jobs for everyone who wants one. As an aside, the unemployment statistics are misleading. The statistics only count those who are actively looking for work. Including the people who are unemployed, but have given up on finding a job, unemployment is running at about 12%.

Before the Wall Street scam imploded, economic statistics suggested the "National" economy was growing at a reasonable pace. I put "National" in quotations because only a small fraction of the people in the nation were gaining more wealth from that economic growth. The US economy, in which financial services made up around 20%, was funneling wealth to a tiny fraction of people.

That system is coming unhinged, despite establishment law maker's attempts to salvage it through bailouts. But as many have observed, facts on the ground might dictate systemic changes. One of those changes could be an economic system that distributes wealth more fairly, rather than the insider takes all system we have now.

I have an inkling of how this might come to pass. First, we're living in a context in which more and more people recognize the value of time spent with their families. This reorientation of lifestyle is related to the movement to simplify life and the locavore movement associated with increasing numbers of farmer's markets.

Second, if people work fewer hours for livable incomes and good benefits, then wealth is being more broadly distributed. This happening in an incremental way today, not by choice, but by demand. State governments are instituting furloughs in which state workers are being required to take several days off without pay. Although the number of people employed isn't increasing as a result of this, it represents an acceptance of fewer hours shared among the workforce. This same philosophy is being adopted in the private sector too.

Third, furloughs are intended to be temporary; however, this economic slump is going to go on for more than a year or more. The furloughs could go on for a number of years. In that time, people might discover they don't mind a little less pay for a little more time to live their lives.

The current furloughs could be a back door to shorter work weeks in the long run, particularly if working people like the idea and push for it. If that were to happen, we could find ourselves adopting a 4-day work week as the norm within the decade. If the economy recovers, and social expectations insist on a 4-day work week, the effect will be more people employed representing a massive sharing of wealth among more people. It would blend well with a medicare-for-all plan in which private businesses are no longer directly burdened with paying for employee's health care costs.

In short, if we have the vision and unity of voice, we could parlay this economic down-turn into an opportunity to secure shorter work weeks and universal health care for all Americans.

Psssst... Do Something




libhom said...

When I was a kid, technology was said to be something that would make us work less in the future. Our lives certainly aren't getting easier.

Fair salaries and taxes on the rich would make a 32 hour work week perfectly reasonable and doable.

GDAEman said...

The operative word is "fair."

Anonymous said...

I would gladly take a one-fifth salary reduction to work one less day a week.

mike said...

closing schools and would save states millions.