What Drives Juliet Schor? How can Americans trade work time and income for a more meaningful life and a healthier economy and ecosystem? For that segment of the population a shift from work time to leisure is key. The downturn has actually opened up space for people to think about different trajectories for their consumption expectations over their lifetimes. Schor grew up in the town, where she developed a strong consciousness of class differences and labor exploitation. Later, as a doctoral student in economics at the University of Massachusetts, she began exploring the interrelationship between how employers controlled and disciplined workers, and conditions outside the workplace.
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What Drives Juliet Schor? How can Americans trade work time and income for a more meaningful life and a healthier economy and ecosystem? For that segment of the population a shift from work time to leisure is key. The downturn has actually opened up space for people to think about different trajectories for their consumption expectations over their lifetimes. Schor grew up in the town, where she developed a strong consciousness of class differences and labor exploitation.
Later, as a doctoral student in economics at the University of Massachusetts, she began exploring the interrelationship between how employers controlled and disciplined workers, and conditions outside the workplace. Schor and Epstein discovered that the cost of job loss was a strong predictor of Fed policy—when the cost was high the Fed had more flexibility to lower interest rates without wage inflation consequences.
When the cost of job loss was low, the Fed raised interest rates. No one was connecting Fed policy with labor market conditions. In her first year she taught Ec 10, the storied intro class which had and would be the focus of considerable political attention over decades.
Radical sections were never instituted, but in recent years, Stephen Marglin has taught an alternative to Ec 10 in the General Education curriculum.
The theory of labor discipline she was working on suggested that employers would raise hours of work beyond what employees preferred. By keeping the cost of job loss to the employee high they had more control over labor discipline. Conversely, it was no surprise that companies provided disincentives to part time workers, including penalties like lack of benefits and compromised career trajectories. In she published her first book, The Overworked American, a look at the relationship between the number of hours Americans work and the decline of leisure in this country.
Her next work, The Overspent American, was an analysis of the social determinants of spending and, in , she published a withering survey of the commercialization of childhood: Born to Buy: The Consumerized Child and the New Consumer Culture.
She wrote both books during a period in her own life whenshe was becoming more conscious of her own spending habits. The book addressed not only the work and spend cycle, but the role of time use in reducing ecological impacts and improving quality of life.
Over the last 20 years, Juliet, her husband and their two children have been on a steady path of reducing their own ecological footprint. Can we talk about how a shift to fewer hours worked in the market economy and more hours spent in meaningful, creative nonmarket activities will facilitate this transition?
Juliet Schor: First of all, we need to understand that it is not going to be possible for wealthy countries to downshift into the required lower or zero growth mode unless we start taking productivity growth in the form of fewer hours of work. Let me unpack that. For example, we have had the marketization of domestic services and household production, which has been going on since the 19th century, as women joined the market labor force.
Since the second half of the 19th century the US and all industrializing countries took a significant amount of productivity growth to shorter hours of work. They transitioned from an average hour work week, down to a hour work week.
In Europe work hours have continued to fall with productivity gains. However, since the s the United States has used all of its productivity growth to work more, and to produce more. That means that our ecological impact is expanding and we are putting more pressure on the environment than it can handle. We are seeing the impact on climate, biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle, water scarcity, etc. Do shorter work hours mean a shorter workweek?
Juliet Schor: There are many ways to realize shorter work hours. You can go to a 4-day workweek. A whole extra day is a lot more valuable than a little more time off every day and it cuts off one day of work travel which is a good in terms of carbon impact.
But there are other ways to do it. For example in Europe it has been through increases in vacation time with people getting more and more paid vacation—up to 6 to 8 weeks of paid vacations in some European countries.
In the US we have no mandatory paid vacation and the average vacation is around two weeks. The other way is to have people work less over their entire working life, retiring earlier, for example, or taking sabbaticals. Why has this shift been so difficult to accomplish in the United States? What the book had to say resonated with a lot of people.
Before the current downturn many people were reporting that they were working more hours than they wanted to and would prefer to trade some income for more time.
I have been really surprised since the current downturn how the idea of working less has not been seen as a solution to long-term unemployment. I think it has to do with the hegemony of neoclassical or neoliberal ideas in the economic conversation where growth is seen as the only solution to any economic problem.
It is really not so much that people are averse to talking about work-time reduction but that they are averse to questioning growth. Work-hours reduction will be pretty easy to put on the table once we understand that we are not going to be able to grow our way out of unemployment. At the same time I think it is also important to say work-hour reduction is not completely off the table now. A number of states have moved to authorize what are called shorter work-time policies where rather than lay people off companies can put them on shorter hours and those workers are eligible for unemployment insurance.
In the downturn many companies across many different industries used furloughs and shorter hours to avoid layoffs. Some states like Utah and Georgia went to a four-day workweek. They did that in a nice spirit of equity rather than forcing a small number of employees to bear all the pain. Contrast that with European countries such as Germany who used shorter work hours as a primary mechanism of adjustment. They ended up with much less unemployment in the downturn. In the Netherlands the financial sector went to a four-day workweek very successfully in response to high unemployment in the s.
It was part of a larger social response to keep their whole population employed. They now have one of the most successful and highly productive economies in Europe, with the shortest hours and high quality of life and personal satisfaction. Juliet Schor: We can view shorter work hours two ways: as a short-term, defensive strategy and as a long-term, offensive strategy. In the first instance it is a way of forestalling unemployment during periods of downturns in demand.
But we can also use it as an offensive strategy along with productivity growth as a way to prevent ecological degradation and to create more time outside of work. Right now the short- and long-term value of shorter work hours are converging in ways that make this both a policy that is good for the environment and good for the downturn. It gives people more free time, solves unemployment and has positive ecological impacts—it is a triple dividend policy with good outcomes along three dimensions.
And we can add a fourth dimension because we know shorter hours of work lead to higher quality of life, less stress, and more happiness. What can policymakers do to transition us from an overworked society to one that enjoys the many dimensions of reduced work hours? Juliet Schor: We can do it in a number of ways. While it is difficult to go voluntarily from full-time employment to part time, the more we do to ensure social goods and put less of the burden on the individual to pay for them the easier it will be for individuals to work less and earn less.
So we need to build that type of flexibility into the labor economy. We need a federal law that allows shorter hours of work to be compensated through the unemployment insurance system.
A second initiative would be for government to begin new hires on an 80 percent schedule. Government is a big employer and this will have a ripple effect. Policymakers could also structure tax credits to give incentives to employers who hire on 80 percent schedules, giving them a bigger credit than if they hire full-time employees because this would enable more people to be brought back into the labor force than if hiring is done on the full-time schedule.
Policymakers could also raise the overtime premium to make it more expensive for firms to use overtime. What actions can individuals take, in the absence of enabling policy, to transition their lives to shorter working hours?
Juliet Schor: A curious observation I have made from my years studying consumer culture is that when people work too many hours they tend to feel deprived and they use consumption to reward themselves, whether that be for an expensive vacation, kitchen remodel or a bigger diamond.
Younger people coming into the labor market have different expectations than they had 10 years ago when it was much more about money and a go-go economy.
We are seeing the rise of the sharing mentality, more car-sharing, for example. The percentage of young people owning a car has fallen pretty dramatically.
And people are using the Internet to get access to used goods or for sharing goods. The recirculation of products is an exploding trend. So you move on each side. As you learn how to have a highly satisfying consumer life with less expenditures, that allows you to work less hours and value your time outside of work more.
What role can the financial markets play in facilitating the transition to reduced working hours? Juliet Schor: If we want to see a shift to a less consumption-driven regime with more leisure time and more sharing the financial sector needs to start innovating products that make that possible.
We could use financial products that allow people to borrow to do housing and car sharing. I would also like to see the expansion of products such as location efficient mortgages that make it easier for people to buy houses closer to mass transit. Creative savings vehicles would also be key financial sector contributions. The more the financial system can help people save the easier it will be to shift to a declining work hours trajectory.
The interesting thing is that countries like the Netherlands that have managed the biggest declines in working hours are also countries where people save a lot. What are the parts of the market economy that will be most affected by this shift to shorter working hours and more leisure? Juliet Schor: People will be able to spend time doing a variety of things with their leisure time that were formerly commoditized in the market economy.
The archetypal examples are growing vegetables, or the care of children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. We are already seeing huge amounts of activity going on outside the market with nonprofessionals being the source of entertainment through home-produced videos, music, writing, software coding, wikis and blogs. People are able to do them because they have time outside their paying jobs, it is called peer production and there is an enormous amount of activity going on in that space.
People are producing things for the love of doing it and for the enjoyment of their friends and colleagues.
A book comes along that offers a perceptive critique of this or that aspect of the culture, and soon enough the chattering classes are abuzz with observations on the subject. The problem is dissected and moaned over, and then promising new approaches are identified and mooned over. But after a few months interest in the problem is displaced by the next perceptive critique. If instead of taking these critiques as presenting a problem to be solved a take usually encouraged by the writer , we took them simply as discussions of difficulties whose sources should be sought out and pondered, we might end up accumulating some wisdom in the process. As an example, take the matter of the American habit of working to exhaustion for the sake of material gain. This was a hot topic twenty years ago.
The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure