Sunday, March 18, 2007

Shorter Work Week Or Choice Of Work Hours

I support choice of work hours rather than a shorter standard work week for several reasons:

On social grounds: The standard work week is a relic of a time when families generally were supported by one bread winner, but families are much more diverse today. There is no reason for a father supporting a wife and three children to work the same number of hours as a childless couple with two incomes.

On political grounds: Changing the standard work week creates political problems, because labor wants shorter hours without less pay, which businesss resists. Allowing choice of work hours avoids this problem and focuses the political debate on the real issue, that people should have the option of downshifting economically and consuming less. A shorter standard work week does not seem to be a real political possibility in the United States (though it may be in other countries): I can imagine businesses running a series of ads showing workers who say they need the longer work hours to survive and they don't want big government to deny them that opportunity. Choice of work hours, without forcing anyone to work shorter hours and to downshift, may be a real possibility in the United States.

On economic grounds: Choice of work hours allows people to maximize their own well-being by choosing between more consumption and more free time. This is similar to the economic choice between any two commodities. It is a very basic point of economic theory that, if you require people to consume a given amount, you reduce overall well-being. If we required everyone to buy a given amount of roast beef, we would reduce the well being of people who don't like roast beef; likewise, if we require everyone to work a given number of hours, we reduce the well being of people who want to consume less overall than the average person.

On economic grounds again: Choice of work hours is a more realistic alternative economically, because it does not reduce a country's competitiveness. One of Sarkozy's points is that the French don't work hard enough to be competitive, and one of his goals is apparently to roll back France's 35 hour week. A shorter standard work week at the same pay reduces international competitiveness, but the option of working shorter hours at the same hourly pay does not. I have not heard any calls to roll back the laws in Netherlands and Germany that give workers the option of working shorter hours.

On political and social ground again: As a reaction to global warming, there could be a strong voluntary simplicity movement during the 21st century. Many people could decide to work less and consume less to save the world's environment. But people can make this decision only if they have choice of work hours. A voluntary simplicity movement has to be based on this voluntary choice.


Blogger Derek Wall said...

great blog....the big issue is a world which does not focus on maximising GDP, great to see you arguing this point...I have been doing it for the last 27 years!

take a look at joel Kovel's excellent book the enemy of nature if you haven't done so and Hugo chavez speech attacking the great car economy (stunning for a president of petro economy)

3:38 PM  

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