Can We Solve the Unemployment Crisis by Working Less?

Yesterday I came across an article by Juliet Schor that was published in Yes! last year. In it she argues for the importance of reducing hours at work and increasing time for self-provisioning (doing things yourself rather than taking shortcuts, like preparing dinner at home rather than eating out). She is most compelling when she argues that working less improves the unemployment crisis and makes sustainable living more feasible.

Schor’s argument is true in a sense, but it nonetheless feels distant from the state of things at present (and even from September 2011, when her article was published). She is right that many Americans “have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives. They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.”

But do these Americans have much of a choice? On Monday, the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson cast a bleak outlook on the current state of the American economy, particularly for younger Americans:

This is not a good time to be starting out in life. Jobs are scarce, and those that exist often pay unexpectedly low wages. Beginning a family — always stressful and uncertain — is increasingly a stretch. The weak economy begets weak family formation. We instinctively know this; several new studies now deepen our understanding.

The bleak labor market has hurt all age groups, but none more than the young. Consider the 23.4 million Americans who, on average, were considered “underemployed” over the past year. This group consists of 12.7 million officially unemployed; 8.2 million working part time but wanting full-time jobs; and 2.5 million desiring work but so discouraged they’d stopped looking.

Our predicament, then, is that we live in a society which has normalized overwork and after the onset of the Great Recession, even made it necessary to overwork in order to make ends meet. The debts acquired in the past, particularly in the last two decades (the 1990s and 2000s), has created an economic purgatory in which countless millions must toil until they finally see and enter some saving light.

I’m not against the self-provisioning Schor argues for. But it presumes people are in a position to take pay cuts and simplify their lifestyle and environmental footprint. Many are simply not that well off. They have debts to pay, major financial commitments coming up (starting a family, buying a house, etc.), and other pressing demands that require significant amounts of money. For now, working less is regrettably not an option for most.

About C. Ryan Knight

C. Ryan Knight teaches English at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, NC, and he lives with his wife outside Greensboro, NC.
Email: knight.cr@gmail.com

  • http://jaketolbert.com/blog Jake T

    The assumption behind your argument, though, is that certain amount of income is required to maintain a particular standard of living.

    I didn’t read the original article, but I don’t believe your assumption is valid. My wife and I paid off $20K of school debt in 4 years after college while I was making less than $1000/mo and she wasn’t doing much better–we did it by living extremely frugally (we’re not living nearly as frugally now and our finances reflect that).

    If we try to maintain our current standards of living (eating out often, eating really nice food when we cook at home, maintaining single-family detached houses in safe neighborhoods with good schools, paying exorbitant entertainment/utility costs (high speed internet, cable, etc), we can’t break that cycle and more work IS required.

    But if we rethink some of our assumptions about what constitutes a “good” standard of living, we can apply a goodly chunk of the money we save to the things that are necessary (paying off debt, housing, etc) in a way that relieves of those obligations in the near future (ie. 5 – 10 yrs).

    Granted, it requires a radical rethinking, plus sacrifice. I think it’s only “impossible” because we’re unwilling to make significant, creative choices.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Ryan,

    The article I’ve attached below from a few weeks ago argues some similar thoughts, most notably that (even on the purely pragmatic business-minded side) shorter work hours actually help productivity in the long-run. Alas, the problem would seem that it is not always up to an employee to be able to cut back on hours, and it would seem that the corporate business world is unlikely to accept the so counterintuitive a premise as the idea that less time worked means greater yield, however well-attested it may be in history and data.

    http://www.salon.com/2012/03/14/bring_back_the_40_hour_work_week/

    Geoffrey R.


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