Whatever Happened to the 20-Hour Workweek?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANew_office.jpg; By Phil Whitehouse (Flickr: New office) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Remember that?

Well, OK, not a historical 20-hour week, but predictions of such?

I remember a book I had as a child in the 70s, that imagined life in the year 2000.  Yes, video phones instead of smartphones, and also futuristic clothing.  I don’t recall whether there were Jetson-like robot maids or hovercraft, but I do clearly remember the statement that people would work only half as much as they do now.

And more recently I stumbled on a book for adults, written in the 60s, again predicting life in the year 2000.  I’d like to find it again, but I wouldn’t have the least idea of where to start with a search, and it now strikes me as rather odd that it was at the library at all, given how aggressively they cull outdated books.  Maybe it was long enough ago that I read this, that it precedes their aggressive culling policy.

It seems to me, if I remember correctly, that it very cautiously guessed that we might have video phones and some sort of computer connectedness, but failed to anticipate the internet and smartphones (and my memory of thinking, “how wrong they were!” means I must have been reading this after the advent of smartphones).  And yet it again predicted that our workdays would be halved.

And it seems to me that this was the key prediction of the future — that automation wouldn’t produce mass joblessness, as we fear now, but would mean that we’d all work a lot less.

Not only has that failed to come to pass, but instead we mock the French who have attempted to implement a 35 hour workweek (which I’m told doesn’t necessarily result in 35 hours of work per week, but instead means a lot of “comp time”).

So let’s consider the question:  why hasn’t part-time work become more prevalent?

Of course, to some degree it has — employers have, after all, responded to the Obamacare mandate by moving their retail, fast food, and other unskilled workers from no-benefits full-time to 29 hours per week, leaving them to try to cobble a living out of two part-time jobs, or living in poverty if they can only manage the one.  But among professionals, and especially those in the upper middle class whose income level would position them quite well to forgo a part of one’s salary in exchange for more leisure time, the opposite seems to have happened, and demands are for longer working hours, except for the small percentage who, like me, are on a Mommy Track (and even then, many nominal part-timers report working nights and weekends anyway).

Now, part of this is about the money — even people who are prosperous always seem to find ways to want to consume more.  Sure, a part-time wage for a professional might buy a typical suburban house, but if your colleagues all live in McMansions in the top addresses (and with the top-ranked schools), are you really going to stick your neck out and say, “no thank you”?  And there’s always another vacation to take (even if you take your conference calls from the hotel room while the kids play), another level to move up in terms of the prestige of the car (because you deserve the BMW 7 series this time), and so on.

But from an employer’s point of view, too, there are costs to part-time employers, whether they’re your top managers or your rank-and-file workers, because there are fixed costs associated with workers, and the more work you can get out of any one working unit, the more profitable you’ll be.  Consider:

  • HR costs for recruiting, onboarding, and the administrative costs for each employee (processing payroll, government compliance regulations, etc).
  • Physical workspace costs
  • Employee training, whether learning new systems or continuing education related to their field.
  • Learning about a new client or project, transition/hand-off time, time spent in status meetings with colleagues.
  • Miscellaneous team meetings that suck up time.
  • “Overlap/coverage” costs — that is, the need to have more overlap and pay attention to team coverage if colleagues aren’t reliably in the office and able to field requests, or missed work if this coverage isn’t dealt with satisfactorily.  (Plus there are, in my line of work, clients who expect their primary contacts to be available 24/7 — and this particularly irritates me, because even overtime-working colleagues are just as often out-of-pocket, due to travelling, other client meetings and calls, and so on.)

If we are speaking of the difference between full-time, and full-time-with-overtime employees, you could add to the list healthcare benefits, which are a fixed cost whether your employee works 40 hours a week or 60 hours.  And as I recall, during boom times at GM, the company far preferred to give its workers lots of overtime, rather than hire new workers, because of the costs they’d face in eventually having to lay off workers.

And I don’t know that we can really deal with these fixed costs simply by saying, “fine, we ensure a level playing field by setting a 35 or even 30 hour week as the norm instead of 40 hours.”  After all, it is exactly the exempt workforce that is earning enough to be able to comfortably shift to a fewer-hour workweek, and it is exactly this group that, by and large, chooses to increase consumption rather that its leisure hours, and it is for this group that the government (in our current legal framework) has no power to mandate reduced hours.  It would take a dramatic shift to move to what I believe is the case in France, where the category of “exempt” workers is much narrower than ours, and encompasses only the highest levels of management.

Yet at the same time, we need to figure out how to get from here to there — by which I mean that an end result in which everyone simply works fewer hours in the week is a far preferable result to one in which automation produces large numbers of people who aren’t in the workforce at all.

Readers, thoughts?


Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANew_office.jpg; By Phil Whitehouse (Flickr: New office) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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