Shorter Work Week Would Mitigate Employment Woes
As a soon-to-be-graduated senior, my next big concern is where I’m going to work. Although it’s been over four years since the recession of 2008, job prospects are still fairly grim. Typically, the formula for dealing with unemployment has been to encourage economic growth and promote education and training to meet demand for workers in new and emerging sectors of the economy.
Both of these tactics begin to address some of our employment problems, but they don’t fully address the long-term unemployed and the many jobs lost in the recession which may not come back. Addressing these problems requires us to rethink how we treat labor in the United States.
Currently, Americans have embraced a work ethic of “more is better.” Americans are working harder more days a week and more hours a day without a significant increase in wages. When we wonder where all of the jobs went, the answer is simple. They went to those who weren’t laid off. If you are lucky enough to have a job, chances are you are now doing the work of at least one other person who lost their job during the recession. People are often working 60-80 hours per week for no additional pay and can’t leave their current job for a better one because it simply doesn’t exist. This is great for corporations who realize this increased productivity as pure profit, but it is detrimental to both employed workers and those seeking work.
The ethic of more is better creates three groups of workers: those who are stressed and overworked, those who are unemployed and those who are underemployed. These trends have been further exacerbated by the decline of unions and advances in technology. Although some might argue that this is a simple question of retraining and educating workers to work in our modern high-tech economy, the “skills gap” typically reported in the media is largely a myth.
Although the American education system is often discussed as falling behind those of other countries, when it comes to higher education we are turning out more individuals with certifications and college diplomas than we have available positions for, especially at the level of wages that they expect to earn with their degrees. This isn’t limited to supposedly “useless” degrees. Currently, the United States is producing more scientists and engineers than can be supported by our current research facility resources, more lawyers than we can possibly employ and more business school graduates than we currently have jobs for. Historically, these degrees would assuredly earn an above average income. Today, such incomes are hardly assured.
The drive of efficiency moves towards an economy with fewer available jobs for the unemployed and increased hours and lower wages for workers who manage to find employment. As such, the best way to rapidly decrease unemployment is to set the maximum work week to 40 hours and bring back overtime even to the tens of millions of salary-exempt workers that are currently being exploited by their employers.
This isn’t a revolutionary concept. The work week shrunk from 72 to 60 to 50 to 40 hours a week as industrialization took hold and industry no longer needed people to work 12-hour days. The 40-hour week became the standard in 1935. Yet, currently, not only has there been no drop in the work week to match increases in productivity, but the work week is actually increasing for those who still have full-time employment.
If we believe that everyone has a right to work and a right to education we need to create a job marketplace that gives people the chance to apply their degrees to a job that fits their skills. As it stands we have fewer high-paying jobs for more skilled workers than we can properly employ. Less work can in fact be more, unless we want to embrace high unemployment and increased stratification as the new normal. We need to channel the values of past labor leaders and fight for a basic right to work, sustainable living wages and a shorter work week and workday so more people can enjoy a fulfilling job that makes use of their skills and education.
Filed under: Opinion