Friday, July 24, 2015

Do We Need to Work More Hours?

Over the years here, I've often pointed out that the amount of time we work is ridiculous. That for all our fossil-fuel powered extravagance, and with the power of a hundred or so energy slaves at our disposal each, we put in more hours than medieval peasants, and at largely meaningless and counterproductive tasks to boot. I've pointed out that history typically shows that technological advancements have resulted in more work for the  human race, not less, beginning with the hoe. Even today, with miracles of automation at our disposal and with the much-hyped computers in all our pockets, we are working more hours than in 1970, not even counting all thew work put in without pay because of the digital tether. I've also talked about the fact that there are not enough outlets to absorb all the labor sloshing around the world just, now, another cause for capitalism's breakdown, as it tends to relegate more and more humans redundant to the economic order.

So it is with great amusement that I read presidential candidate Jeb! Bush's recent call for Americans to work more hours to achieve "Four percent growth as far as the eye can see..."
During this interview, Bush, while discussing the American economy and his plan to give it a PED-like boost, grabbed what we’ll call the fourth rail of American politics and told Americans they need to work harder. A small price to pay in the name of sweet, sweet 4 percent growth. Are you with me? 
    "My aspiration for the country -- and I believe we can achieve it -- is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see," he told the newspaper. "Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in." 
Eek. Telling the American people they need to work harder is an untested political campaign strategy—presumably for good reason. Jeb Bush, perhaps sensing people weren’t as into the 4-percent or bust plan as he thought, clarified later in the day, telling reporters not everyone needs to work more. "If we’re going to grow the economy people need to stop being part-time workers, they need to be having access to greater opportunities to work,” Bush said.
Jeb Bush Narrowly Averts Telling American People They Need to Work More to Boost the Economy (Slate)
Jeb Bush's remarks also harken back to a controversial comment made by his brother, George W Bush, in January 2005. "You work three jobs?" then-President Bush asked a divorced mother of three in Nebraska during a town hall forum. "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. Get any sleep?"

Later on Wednesday Jeb Bush clarified his remarks, saying that he was referring to Americans who are looking for full-time work but are unable to find it. "Only Washington Democrats could be out-of-touch enough to criticise giving more Americans the ability to work, earn a paycheque, and make ends meet," a Bush campaign aide said.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.65 million Americans are working non-agricultural part-time jobs because they can't find full-time employment. When these individuals and others who have looked for work in the last 12 months are added to the official unemployed number, the unemployment rate in the US rises from 5.3% to 10.5%

The Protestant work ethic - that labour not only leads to prosperity but also personal salvation - has been ingrained in US culture since the days of the Pilgrims, of course. And when compared to other industrialised nations, Americans log some of the longest hours, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In 2014 US workers clocked 1,789 hours of labour per year, behind nations like top-ranked Mexico (2,228), Russia (1,985) and Hungary (1,858) but ahead of Japan (1,729), Canada (1,704), the UK (1,677) and Germany (1,371). In 2014 Gallup conducted a survey of Americans that found full-time workers averaged 47 hours per week and 18% worked more than 60 hours a week.

Americans also tend to take fewer holidays than their European counterparts, a phenomenon the US Travel Association's Project: Time Off labels the "work martyr syndrome".
Jeb Bush: Americans 'need to work longer hours' (BBC News)

More work! More growth! Work harder! Work faster! Work longer! "Tote that barge and lift dat bale!" A few notes are in order.

The most obvious one is that Americans already work more hours right now than almost anyone else on earth:
The average US workweek is 41 hours, 3 hours longer than Britain’s and even longer than in Germany, France, Spain, or the Netherlands (see the Table below). 
    32% of American employees work 45 or more hours, compared with 18% in Germany, and 4% in France. 
    Only in the UK does the percentage of employees putting in these long hours approach the US one. 
Over a year, the average American employee puts in 1,800 hours, which is more than any other wealthy country, even Japan. What is remarkable is the change during the past three decades. In 1979, Americans looked little different from workers in these other countries, working about the same number of hours per year as the French or the British, and many fewer hours than Japanese. Since then, employees in other countries have begun to take it easier, to enjoy their riches, but Americans have not. 
The picture is even bleaker than these numbers suggest. Not only do Americans work longer hours than their European counterparts, but they are much more likely to work at night and on weekends. 
    27% of US employees perform some work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. 
    In France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany the comparable fractions are much lower. Even in the UK, only 19 % of workers are on the job at night.  
Work on weekends is also more common in the US than in other rich countries, with 29% of American workers doing some work on weekends, far above Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands; and even in the UK only 25% of employees do some work on weekends.
Americans work too long (and too often at strange times)  (VOX EU)
 That's what [Juliet] Schor's book tries to do, as well as two recent releases: The White-Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Fraser, and The Working Life by Joanne B. Ciulla. 
All those books have been embraced by a large part of the public that apparently feels harassed by the pressures of the workplace. The authors all find evidence that many Americans are overstressed and overworked in trends that are not necessarily measured with a punch clock; trends such as road rage, workplace shootings, the rising number of children in day care and increasing demands for after-school activities to occupy children whose parents are too busy or still at work. 
They aren't the only ones finding long hours in at least certain parts of the workforce. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last year, more than 25 million Americans — 20.5 percent of the total workforce — reported they worked at least 49 hours a week in 1999. Eleven million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week...  
 The overall figures for how many hours a week the average American works have been held down by the increasing number of part-time service and retail jobs in the economy. But since many of the part-time jobs have been filled by the increasing number of women in the workforce, and many of these women had previously been housewives, there are fewer hours when anyone is taking care of household chores. Instead of coming home to find the refrigerator and cupboards stocked, dinner ready, the table set, the clothes washed, the house clean and the children entertained, men are coming home and finding they have to chip in, because their wives aren't "the little woman," anymore. They are now sharing duties as breadwinner, which means men have to share household chores. The situation is exaggerated when both spouses work full-time — particularly if they don't earn enough to hire help. 
If people aren't spending quite as many more hours at work as they think they are, the fact that they aren't allowed as much leisure time once they're off work might account for the apparent illusion. Authors like Fraser, Schor and Ciullo, though, argue that there is no illusion, and the case made by the harried Americans who fill their books — and fill commuter trains and highways — is hard to discount.
Americans work more than anyone (ABC News)

Another is that the shift to part-time work is not a choice on the part of the workers, it is a reflection of the fact that employers do not want to to offer benefits. The brutal treatment of workers in the United States is not a universal law of the "free market" as libertarians like to assume, rather, it has everything to do with social choices:
I was halfway through a job interview when I realized I was wrinkling my nose. I couldn't help myself. A full-time freelance position with a long commute, no benefits, and a quarter of my old pay was the best they could do? I couldn't hide how I felt about that, and the 25-year-old conducting the interview noticed. 
"Are you interested in permanent jobs instead?" she asked. 
"I could consider a permanent job if it was part-time," I said. 
She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and went right back to her pitch: long commute, full-time, no benefits. No way, I thought. Who would want to do that? And then it hit me: Either I had become a completely privileged jerk or my own country was not as amazing as I had once thought it to be. This wasn't an unusually bad offer: It was just American Reality. 
Before I moved to Switzerland for almost a decade, American Reality was all I knew. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment making $30,000 a year in a job where I worked almost seven days a week with no overtime pay and received 10 days of paid time off a year. In other words, for the hours worked, I was making minimum wage, if that. The glamour of this job was supposed to make up for the hours, but in reality, working every weekend is a ticket to burnout — not success. 
My husband and I were so accustomed to American Reality that when he was offered an opportunity to work in Switzerland, we both thought about travel and adventure — not about improving our quality of life. It hadn't occurred to us that we could improve our quality of life simply by moving. But without realizing it, or even asking for it, a better life quality came to us. And this is why, now that I'm back, I'm angry that my own country isn't providing more for its people. I will never regret living abroad. It taught me to understand another culture. And it taught me to see my own. But it also taught me something else — to lose touch with the American version of reality. 
The Swiss work hard, but they have a strong work-life balance. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708. But the real story is that the average American had to work 219 hours more per year for this lesser salary. 
In Switzerland, you don't arrive to a meeting late, but you also don't leave for your lunch break a second past noon. If it's summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you...Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. ...Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour. Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can't even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It's just what you do.... 
The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary­ because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay. 
During my Swiss career, I was employed by various companies from 25 percent to 100 percent. When I worked 60 percent, for example, I worked three days a week. A job that is 50 percent could mean the employee works five mornings a week or, as I once did, two and a half days a week. The freedom to choose the amount of work that was right for me at varying points of my life was wonderful and kept me engaged and happy. 
Often, jobs in Switzerland are advertised with the percentage of work that is expected. Other times, you can negotiate what percentage you would like to work or request to go from working five days a week to four days a week, for example. There is normally little risk involved in asking.... 
At my former American job, I received 10 days of paid vacation per year, and each of those days came with a sizable portion of guilt if actually used. But in Switzerland, my husband's company gave employees six weeks of vacation a year. Most of the Swiss companies I worked for gave four — the legal minimum is four. Moreover, everything shut down between Christmas and New Year's, giving most employees like me another guaranteed week off. 
People in Europe took vacation seriously. Once, when I only took 10 days for a trip to Spain, my colleagues chastised me for taking so little time off. I learned to take vacation chunks in two-week intervals. Well rested, I noticed that I felt more productive and creative when I returned to work.
Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture (Vox)

Another frequently pointed out is that all of the additional work hours and productivity has not gone into increases in living standards for the workers themselves, only to the massive fortunes of the very wealthiest Americans. The average worker hasn't seen any of the benefits of growth, four percent or otherwise; only Wall Street has seen it. So the link between working more and increased incomes is dubious at best:
Bush claimed that if workers were able to get scheduled for more hours, they would “through their productivity gain more income for their families.” Obviously more hours would equal a larger paycheck. But Bush’s suggestion that being more productive will produce individual prosperity for American workers in the 21st century is flat wrong.

The relationship between American workers’ industriousness and their economic security has eroded so severely in recent decades that the two concepts aren’t even on speaking terms these days.

Workers were a staggering 25 percent more productive in 2012 than they were in 2000. But over the same period that bosses started getting a full quarter more work out of their employees, the median wage grew exactly zero percent. Even those with college degrees saw their pay stagnate over the past decade. Over the five-year stretch encompassing the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks and the first few years of the slow recovery Bush is criticizing, workers gave their bosses an 8 percent jump in productivity – and got back an outright decline in earnings.

Wages and work ethic were already decoupled long before the enormous economic sinkhole that Bush’s brother handed down to President Obama. After charting nearly identical growth trajectories for decades after World War II, productivity growth and wage growth unlinked in the mid-1970s. Productivity has more than doubled in those past 35 years, while wages have grown by roughly 13 percent...

More subtly, Bush’s comments paper over an extreme shift in corporate priorities that has enriched a relative handful of people – mostly investors, Wall Street advisers, and CEOs – at the expense of frontline workers. Working people now take home the lowest share of total corporate income that’s been recorded since 1950. After hovering between 78 and 84 percent for decades, labor’s share of overall income in the corporate sector dropped to 74 percent last year. It’s a small difference in percentage terms, but that slide reflects billions of dollars that once went to workers and now go to profits.
Mind The Gaffe: What’s Missing From The Media Scrum Over Bush’s Call To ‘Work Longer Hours’ (ThinkProgress)

This post marshals a bunch of studies that point out the obvious - that there are diminishing marginal returns to more hours of work. The overall number of hours worked doesn't matter, it is output per hour, and how that output is distributed per capita among the population. As has often been pointed out, poorer countries work more hours and lave a lower income per capita (like Nigeria or Honduras); richer countries work less hours and have higher output and income per capita (like Germany or Switzerland). Thus the "nose to the grindstone" attitude is more in line with a banana republic than an industrial superpower:
Productivity falls sharply after a 50-hour workweek, found Stanford economics professor John Pencavel. So connecting less is good for you and your company—though your boss may need convincing...Research shows working longer hours doesn’t increase productivity. Economists have argued for some time working longer hours would negatively affect productivity. John Hicks, a British economist who looked at this issue in the 1930s, concluded that productivity declined as working hours increased. And John Pencavel of Stanford University showed in his research that reduced working hours can be good for productivity. The study found that productivity declined markedly after more than 50 hours a week and that the absence of a rest day (such as Sunday) damaged productivity...Employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour working week and falls off the cliff after 55 hours, with those putting in 70 hours producing nothing more in those extra 15 hours, according to a recent study by John Pencavel of Stanford University. He says long hours are also connected to absenteeism and high employee turnover, and there are ancillary costs to employers such as providing light, heat, ventilation, and supervisory labour during those extra hours...
People Need to Work Longer Shorter Hours (EconoSpeak)

Most our work is "padding" anyway. Work expands and contracts in proportion to the time that it needs to fill (Parkinson's Law), which is why modern work patterns make no sense. We goldbrick to fill in the allotted "forty hours a week," and then work ourselves into a coffee-fueled, error-prone stupor as the deadline approaches.

When there are already not enough jobs to go around, it doesn't make sense for anyone to work longer hours:
Even if almost no one thinks that Bush’s 4.0% permanent growth target is remotely plausible, those that agree with his premise that Americans need to work more argue that we need more workers in order to sustain economic growth at all. In particular, they posit that, as our population ages, we will have to keep people in the work force beyond the current retirement age and get more hours of work from them each year until they do retire.

This view is striking given that the United States – and most of the rest of the world – has been suffering from the opposite problem for the last eight years: we don’t have enough jobs for the people who want them. The United States, Europe, and Japan all have fewer people working than would like to work because there is insufficient demand in the economy. Obviously we can’t both have a shortage of workers and a shortage of jobs at the same time.

One of the theories that is getting widely (and wrongly) repeated is that none of us will have work because robots are taking all the jobs. But, while the robots taking all our jobs story is an exaggeration, the basic point is right: we are seeing rising productivity, which means that we can produce more goods and services with the same amount of labor. Productivity, including that spurred by technological innovation, is the basis for rising living standards.

Historically, the benefits from higher productivity are higher pay and more leisure – if we go back a century, for instance, work weeks of 60 or even 70 hours a week were common. But while the American work week has been largely fixed at 40 hours a week for the last 70 years, other countries have pursued policies to shorten the work week and/or work year through paid sick days, paid family leave, and paid vacation.

Several European countries have actively pushed policies of work sharing as an alternative to unemployment: the government compensates workers, in part, for a reduction in hours rather than paying unemployment insurance to someone who has lost their job. Germany has led the way in pushing work sharing policies, which is an important factor in its 4.7% unemployment rate. And, as a result of work sharing and other policies, the average worker in Germany puts in almost 25% fewer hours each year than workers in the United States, according to the OECD. Most other wealthy countries are similar to Germany: in the Netherlands, the average work year is 21% shorter than in the US and, in Denmark, it is 20% shorter.
Jeb Bush wants us to work more for the collective good. Who's the socialist now? (Dean Baker, The Guardian)

Finally, what no one talks about is that most of the jobs that have been created over the past decade have been lousy jobs:
One of the lesser known facts about the post-recession economy is that while new jobs are being created at near record levels, a significant number are bad jobs. No one knows exactly how many, but in April 2014,the National Employment Law Project, which measured job quality by industry wage level, reported that 44 percent of jobs created (pdf) between 2010 and 2014 were in lower wage industries, compared to 56 percent in mid wage and high wage ones.

The proportion of bad jobs was probably even higher since the study set the low wage floor two dollars above the current federal minimum wage. We also know that growing industries like health and other care as well as tourist related enterprises and many small manufacturing firms all pay minimum wages.

The trend may not even be new, for there is some evidence that the rising proportion of bad jobs goes back as far as the 1970s. John Schmitt and Janelle Jones of the Center for Economic Policy Research estimate the ability and willingness of employers to create good jobs has decreased by a third since 1979.

More important, the forces behind the creation of bad jobs remain in place. Global competition with low wage countries, outsourcing of American jobs, increasing computerization and robotization, the political influence of corporate and Wall Street firms and the weakening of unions continue. Moreover, many industries and occupations that depend on low wage workers are still expanding. Consequently, the economy may continue to produce too many bad jobs even when it is also producing record profits for many employers and their shareholders.

A future economy which operates with an ever rising proportion of bad jobs is a horrifying possibility. It depresses consumer demand and thus sets the economy on an ever declining and deflationary path. Bad jobs also harm workers and their families. Frequent budgetary crises, economic worries and feelings of insecurity are known to endanger the physical and mental health of their holders. They can spread to partners, children and family life, and may even scar subsequent generations.
Fixing the bad jobs economy (Work in Progress). And as the economy creates more low-wage jobs, the people in those low-wage jobs tend to have children. These children growing up in poverty will have lasting scars and epigenetic effects which will lead to a downward spiral of the overall population lasting for generations:
Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development. Already high compared with other developed nations, the child poverty rate in the United States increased dramatically as a result of the economic crisis. The official poverty line in 2013 was $23,624 for a family of two adults and two children. Poverty and financial stress can impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn. It can contribute to behavioral, social and emotional problems and poor health. The risks posed by economic hardship are greatest among children who experience poverty when they are young and among those who experience persistent and deep poverty.
Children don’t count (Real World Economics Review)

So it's a bit hard to see how working more will achieve anything besides a worse and more dysfunctional standard of living for most people and higher profits for corporations and the wealthy.

BONUS: Americans are the most pointlessly overworked people in the world (The Week)
Over at Demos, Matt Bruenig came up with a clever way of thinking about this. In general, as countries become richer and more productive, they work less and less, since they can produce more with the same effort. Plot hours worked per person versus GDP per hour worked, and you can produce a trend line. Those above the line work unusually hard, while those under it do the opposite.

So who works the hardest, controlling for relative wealth? Americans, by far:


  1. Great work pulling the information together. No surprise Jeb Bush is prescribing exactly the wrong solution for what ails us. I guess that's because that's what his backers what.
    The tragedy is a lack of leadership and integrity. None of the individuals vyeing for public office have the insight or intelegence to see the systems we created to serve us are failing. I suppose as more opt out it will be more difficult to disguise the ovcious.

  2. Wow. I can remember back in the 1980s when we were praising the Japanese because of the long hours they worked in order to push the engine of their economic juggernaut back then. Now, we are working as the Japanese have worked and are killing ourselves for a dying economic system. The Japanese have even come to their senses and have started to complain about the long work hours that they used to take great pride in.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.