Most economists have come to believe that we are likely in for a solid decade of high unemployment and underemployment. There just doesn’t appear to be enough work to go around. That, by itself, is why I believe that this period of economic history will eventually become known as a Depression – it’s about an excess of capacity to produce stuff and services that has to be absorbed. Getting out of these doldrums is going to take fundamental changes in how we work that are probably best understood by how we got to where we are today. Predicting the future may be hard, but we can at least understand where we’ve been and go from there.
The first problem we have is a statement that I think is actually quite wrong – that there isn’t enough work to go around. In her 1992 book “The Overworked American,” Juliet Schor noted that Americans were working 163 more hours per year than they did in 1967. Joe Robinson saw this trend continue in his 2003 book “Work to Live,” noting that this hit 182 hours by the year 2000. With vacations and other time off that takes the working year down to about 1920 hours a year, that number curiously works out to 10% more time at work – about our headline unemployment rate today.
Why isn’t this work more evenly distributed? Part of the problem has to be the overhead per employee, the fixed costs in terms of benefits, training, recruiting, and managing each employee at a company. Bringing that down is always going to be the easiest way to reduce the workload on employees in companies hellbent on running “lean and mean.” But there is obviously more to it than that.
As we’ve moved towards a more service- and knowledge-based economy, the skills and smarts of any given worker has only become more valuable. Knowing the customers, products, and systems of a big corporation requires a lot of flexibility that crosses traditional lines of expertise and requires cross-training. As beneficial as these changes are, the initial wave has probably only compounded the problem of separating the labor force into the have-jobs and the have-not-jobs – the experienced people who’ve been around are just too valuable.
Like any similar economic downturn, it’s entirely possible that we’re simply going through a painful restructuring that will make us stronger and more productive. The question remains as to how we get through the next decade – and if it really have to take that long to see it through.
When confronted with an excess of capacity in a manufacturing economy, the architects of the New Deal under FDR realized that the most important thing they could do was to increase demand. That’s not going to be an option for an economy struggling to digest a generation’s worth of fundamental changes in how and why people work. When the problem is one of distribution of work, as it seems to be, it probably makes more sense to find ways to limit the output per employee. That’s not a simple thing to do.
This naturally gets us back to “Work to Live,” the book that Robinson intended as a kind of manifesto for the Work to Live Campaign. The short version is that people who do have jobs need to, more or less, refuse to keep working so many hours that their jobs define their time on this planet at the exclusion of family and leisure time. That’s not an easy thing to do. But along with a national focus on reducing the overhead per employee, it might be the most important thing for our government to support both through law and education if we are going to make this next decade one of prosperity on the other side rather than one long uphill struggle.
How we got to where we are today is not hard to understand – those with jobs are being squeezed more than ever before, while those without jobs are simply left out in the open to brave the winds of change on their own. Getting through the storm will take some cooperation, at least socially. What say you about getting through this?