Monday, April 29, 2019

Shorter Work Hours and Worktime Choice

In the past, American work hours became shorter as the standard work week was reduced. It still makes sense for us to shorten standard work hours, to catch up with Europe’s shorter hours, but in today’s society, there are a number of reasons why it is even more important to focus on the choice of work hours.
Choice of work hours accommodates recent changes in the family. Until a few decades ago, most families were supported by one breadwinner. Today, families are much more di­verse. Some people are still the only wage earners for their families, and they may need to work longer hours to get by. Other families are made up of two working professionals without children, who can easily afford to work shorter hours.
Choice of work hours has political advantages. Conservatives would argue against a shorter standard work week by saying that people want to work and earn more, but it would be hard for them to argue against letting people make this choice for themselves. Shortening the standard work week also creates conflicts between employers and employees by raising the cost of labor (which is why the 35-hour work week has become so controversial in France), but choice of work hours does not create this conflict (which is why this choice has not become controversial in Germany and the Netherlands).
Choice of work hours would reduce inequality of income, because people with higher hourly earnings are more likely to work shorter hours. Ultimately, it could change our definition of success: We would consider people successful if they not only had a higher income than average but also had more free time than average.
Most important, choice of work hours would let people make a deliberate choice of their standard of living. Each person would have to decide whether it is more important to consume more or to have more free time, and this choice would make people think much harder about their purchases. Instead of buying a McMansion and an SUV, you could buy a smaller house and car and work (say) one day less each week. If you have fixed work hours and a fixed salary, you might as well buy the biggest house and the biggest car you can afford; but if you have a choice of work hours, you will consider that consuming less would allow you to work less.
Choice of standard of living has become important now that we have moved from a scarcity economy to a surplus economy.
In theory, choice of work hours has always made sense. Eco­nomic theory has always said that people should have a free choice among different products, so they can choose the combination of products that gives them the most satisfaction. This theory implies that people should be able to choose between consuming more and having more free time for exactly the same reason: They should be able to choose the combination of consumption and free time that gives them the most satisfaction.
In practice, this choice was not very important in the past. Until the mid twentieth century, most people consumed not much more than the essentials, so they could not go very far in choosing more free time rather than more income. As a result, most economists overlooked the issue historically.
In today’s American economy, though, most people consume more than the essentials and could get by with less income and more free time. The choice between more free time and more income is now critical to determining what sort of lives people lead. This choice is needed to let people live in the way they prefer.