Great Graphic: Hours Worked Per Week (1870-2000)

This Great Graphic was tweeted by Ian Bremmer, but it comes from Max Roser.   It shows the work week, measured in hours going back to 1870 for several countries, including the US, German and France. The data only runs up to 2000. At the risk of turning a necessity into a virtue, perhaps the most recent data would be skewed by the two downturns in the first decade of the new century.  

In any event, the long-term decline in the weekly hours worked is clear.  However, the century-old project appears to be faltering. The weakening of labor unions, and the integration of former Soviet Union, Chinese and Indian workers into the global economy prevents labor from continuing the campaign.   Moreover, the high levels of unemployment coupled with the low real wages, has left many reluctant to "rock the boat".  

Nevertheless, one way to create more employment opportunities is to reduce the work week, though it dies not seem to be on the agenda anywhere.  In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the US government helped spur the organization of American workers. A strong labor movement was understood by Roosevelt-led government to be an integral part of getting America "working again". It also helped to reverse the trend toward great income and wealth inequality.

If one agrees that the disparity of income and wealth poses economic, political and moral challenges, re-thinking the length of the work week may be among the least intrusive ways to address it.  Moreover, given the extent of labor-saving technological progress, there is no "natural" reason why the number of employment opportunities an economy generates should have any relationship to size of the labor force.  

Yet in someways, high income societies are moving in the opposite direction--raising retirement ages. This is obviously meant to reduce the cost of social security outlays. However, it risks aggravating the generational issue. The older generation stays in their positions for longer, blocking the ascendancy of the next generation. 

The link between work and consumption was previously regarded as sacrosanct because it was critical to maintaining market discipline. No work, no food. However, given that government transfers are the fastest growing part of household income in the US, and there is even more extensive social protection in Europe, the link between work and consumption has already been loosened. That Rubicon has been crossed. The productive capacity is so large that society needs people to consume more than it needs people to work. Indeed, wealth and income disparities are much greater than the disparity of consumption. 

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