There’s nothing magical about 40 hours

10 10 2016

“There is a connection between growth and jobs, but only because Wall Street has the system gamed to assure that all the gains from increased productivity go to managers and shareholders rather than to labour.
Thus the total number of jobs will decline and unemployment will increase over time if the economy is not growing at a rate at least equal to the increase in productivity. This problem is easily avoided if productivity gains instead translate into greater time for working people to devote to family, community, and other quality-of-life pursuits.”

David Korten from Agenda for a New Economy

If you are reading this you’re probably aware of the proliferation of articles being written about rapid technological advances and associated unemployment problems.

Most of these articles say pretty much the same thing:- Technology is advancing so fast in every area of human endeavour, it is rapidly transforming our world. As a result computer programs and robots are set to take over many areas of work that are currently done by humans. This will put many people out of work and, depending on the particular writer’s view, will result in either huge employment problems or new opportunities.

Have just read an article on the subject that puts forward a commonly expressed idea – as follows;
“Two schools of economic thinking have long been engaged in a debate about the potential effects of automation on jobs. …Will new technology spawn mass unemployment, as the robots take jobs away from humans? Or will the jobs robots take over release or unveil – or even create – demand for new human jobs?”

And from another article;
“70-80% of jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be a lot of new jobs, but it is not clear if there will be enough new jobs in such a short time.”

But there is another side to the argument that is usually not spoken about. Why don’t we let the new technology do as much of our work as it can, and welcome the fact that this frees us to spend our time doing things to make our lives more fulfilling and the world a better place to live? This doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t continue doing something that fulfils them when a new technology is invented to do it; it’s just that the need for a person to do that particular job for the sake of our survival is no longer necessary. This seems to me to be the common sense approach to the issue; yet most economists and commentators disagree.

The usual argument is as follows.

When people express concerns about new technology taking jobs, they are usually reassured by economists that the same concerns have been raised many times since the industrial revolution began, and that they have always proved to be unfounded. The argument goes that while many types of work have been lost to new technology, a sufficient number of new jobs have always arisen to take their place. An often used example is that in 1900 40% of US workers were employed in agriculture and by the year 2000 that had fallen to just 2 percent. This has not resulted in long-term unemployment of farm-workers, as myriads of new industries have arisen, resulting in more jobs and ever-increasing standards of living. In 200 years of technological advancement, we are told, there has never been a corresponding outbreak of technological unemployment.

But that argument doesn’t give the full picture; because in the last 140 years there has been a 50% reduction in work hours.(see graph below) If a standard job was still 65 hours a week with 4 days holidays a year as it was in the 1870s, there would now be a massive shortage of work and an unemployment rate of around 50%. We would also have much less time to enjoy the benefits that technology has brought us, as we would be working most of the time.

There is nothing magical about 40 hours a week being what constitutes a normal job. Work hours have reduced in the past due to technological advances and there is no good reason why they shouldn’t reduce further as we progress into the next technological revolution. Machines haven’t taken jobs as such, but they have taken away massive amounts of work. That should be something to be welcomed – but our current economic thinking sees it as something to fear.

work-hours-graph

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