Imagining a world in which jobs take up much less of our time may seem utopian, especially now, when a scarcity mentality dominates the economic conversation. People who are employed often find it difficult to scale back their jobs. Costs of medical care, education, and child care are rising. It may be hard to find new sources of income when U.S. companies have been laying people off at a dizzying rate.That's long been a pet cause at Cold Spring Shops, although it's something more likely to emerge out of a multitude of small decisions long before any new Fair Labor Standards Act codifies it.
But fewer work hours for people with jobs is a key step toward solving the unemployment crisis—while giving Americans healthier lives. Fewer hours means more jobs are available to people who need them. Living on less pay usually means consuming less, making more of the things one needs at home, and living lighter, whether by design or by accident.
Today, driven both by necessity and the deliberate choice to live simply, more Americans are shifting toward fewer work hours. It’s a trend that, if done correctly, could get us out of our current economic crisis and away from unsustainable economic growth.
Not surprisingly, over the last 20 years, a large number of U.S. employees report being overworked. A 2004 study found that 44 percent of respondents were often or very often overworked, overwhelmed at their jobs, or unable to step back and process what’s going on. A third reported being chronically overworked. These overworked employees had much higher stress levels, worse physical health, higher rates of depression, and a reduced ability to take care of themselves than their less-pressured colleagues.There are laws of conservation, and thus limits to productivity gains by downsizing. Whether your model of behavior is "Going Galt" or "Take This Job and Shove It", the resistance grows.
But there are recent signs that a culture shift toward shorter hours has begun. In 1996, when I first surveyed on this issue, 19 percent of the adult population reported having made a voluntary lifestyle change during the previous five years that entailed earning less money. In a 2004 survey by the Center for a New American Dream, 48 percent did.What the government subsidizes, it gets more of. That's a different model than the backward bending supply curve. The income and substitution effects do kick in, subsidies or not.
The stagnant economy, difficult as it is, represents an opportunity for expanding the norm of part-time work. In the first year of the recession, many businesses avoided layoffs by reducing hours through furloughs, unpaid vacations, four-day workweeks, and flex-time. By mid-2009, one study of large firms found that 20 percent had reduced hours to forestall job cuts.
Unfortunately, a lack of institutional support for short hours policies reversed many of those programs, as economist Dean Baker argued in a recent paper. Baker hypothesizes that businesses would provide an additional 1 to 2 million jobs a year if workers could collect unemployment insurance when they are on short schedules.
One thing we do know is that people who voluntarily start working less are generally pleased. In the New Dream survey, 23 percent said they were not only happier, but they didn’t miss the money. Sixty percent reported being happier, but missed the money to varying degrees. Only 10 percent regretted the change. And I’ve also found downshifters who began with a job loss or an involuntary reduction in pay or hours, but came to prefer having a wealth of time.On the other hand, mandating a shorter workweek doesn't necessarily expand job opportunities.
In April 2009, according to a national survey, one in five Americans said they were making plans to plant a garden that year. After the recession hit, service-oriented businesses such as salons, pet groomers, and nannies experienced a decline in business as people began doing these things for themselves. An annual expo called Maker Faire that started in California has been attracting growing numbers of do-it-yourselfers and inventors. It’s spreading to new locations around the country, and attendance has reportedly quadrupled since 2006.On the one hand, perhaps the office or factory hires more people under a regime of thirty hours a week rather than forty. On the other hand, those shorter work weeks provide more time for do-it-yourself activities, implying a substitution away from purchases of those pet grooming services and farms turned into upscale provisioners. And perhaps to another cycle of the emergence of overwork.
People are returning to lost arts practiced by earlier generations—woodworking, quilting, brewing beer, and canning and preserving. They are also hunting, fishing, and sewing. People engage in these activities because they enjoy them and they yield better-quality products or products that are not easily available. Producing artisanal jams, sauces, and smoked meats, or handmade sweaters, quilts, and clothing makes these pricey items affordable.
Self-provisioning is also a spur to entrepreneurial activity. Most people who practice it don’t self-provide everything. They find some productive activities they prefer, are more skilled at, or can do more easily. They trade or sell what they’re best at producing. With this specialization, self-provisioning becomes a pathway to incubating a set of small businesses that will flourish as the sustainable economy takes off.Or perhaps that's the route Silicon Valley took, in which the incubator of small business is a garage with a freezer full of Snickers bars, and the sleepover of the adolescents messing about with their soldering irons and keyboards becomes the sleepover of the developers in their sleeping bags on the floors of their cubicles.