Work Less, Help The Environment And The Economy

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In this summer of 100-plus-degree heat throughout much of the country, the topic of warming and climate destabilization is again heating up. As scientists, a majority of the U.S. public and most of the world have recognized, we need significant action and we need it yesterday. Without action, we face a certain future of climate catastrophe.

At the same time, the country faces ongoing unemployment and under-employment. The lackluster jobs reports of the last few months provide fresh evidence that the overhang of labor market imbalance from the collapse of 2008 remains. Employment rates plummeted that year and have not recovered. There are still 24 million Americans who are either out of a job altogether, marginally attached to the labor force, or working part-time because they can’t find more hours.

Work-time reductions may be essential to curing not just our unemployment woes but our ecological ones too.

The standard approach to job creation is to gun the engine of economic growth and hope the jobs trickle down. That’s the solution on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. Differences lie in how to stimulate growth, not whether it is the path to jobs. But this rare point of bipartisan consensus has itself become a problem. While a policy of indiscriminate growth may have served the nation well for much of the 20th century, it looks less useful in the 21st, for two reasons: Higher growth boosts carbon emissions, and it’s an increasingly inefficient way to generate employment.

With a globalized economy in which many jobs are created elsewhere, there are now fewer jobs generated in the U.S. for each additional dollar of GDP. Moreover, the information economy continues to raise the productivity of labor throughout the economy, further reducing labor requirements. Those two “leakages” are widely recognized. But there’s a third factor dragging down job growth that is far less known: our unusually high working hours.

American hours of work have been on a steady upward trajectory for more than 30 years. By 2011, the average U.S. employee was on the job almost 300 more hours per year than many Western Europeans. In that year, Americans worked 296 more hours than Germans, 264 more than the French and 320 more than the Dutch, with lower, but still substantial differentials between Sweden (90) and the U.K. (62). That suggests a U.S. employer needs to generate between 4 percent and 24 percent more revenue to justify a new hire than his or her European counterparts. Compared with the countries where the gap is the largest, the U.S. is producing four new jobs for every five created in those short-hour nations.

As it turns out, work time is also key to curbing carbon emissions. For reasons connected to both macro- and microeconomics, shorter hours of work are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions. In a study I conducted recently with sociologists from Washington State University using data from 29 high-income countries from 1970 to 2007, we found that when employees worked fewer hours per year, the carbon footprints and emissions of their nations were lower. And the reverse also holds: High-hours countries emit more.

We believe there are two reasons for this relationship. The first pertains to the scale of the economy. Long-hour nations expand production, staying closer to the fastest possible growth path. By contrast, countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands, while still extremely rich by international standards, aren’t expanding the scale or size of their economies as much as they would be if their laborers spent more time in their factories and offices.

The second reason is that having more free time changes what people do in their daily lives. Households that are time stressed live in more carbon-intensive ways. Travel mode is the most obvious. Getting places faster requires more carbon (think: walk, bike, public transport, drive, fly). But, even controlling for their higher incomes, households that work long hours also buy more prepared food and live in bigger houses.

In the 1980s, the Dutch solved their unemployment problems by offering new government hires a four-day workweek at 80 percent pay, a savvy policy that allowed 20 percent more young people to get jobs. It’s a good way to begin, because youth are now bearing the brunt of the unemployment crisis. Today, the Dutch not only have the lowest hours in Europe, high labor productivity and a successful economy, but a carbon footprint that is only 63 percent of the American level.

Getting back onto a path of work-time reductions, which the U.S. abandoned in the 1970s, may be essential to curing not just our unemployment woes but our ecological ones too.

This program aired on August 20, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.