Should we all work less?

Technologies connect us to others 24/7, which often means we can work around the clock.


Kai Ryssdal: The conventional economic wisdom right now is that we need more: More sales, more growth, and especially, more jobs. But sometimes, the conventional wisdom is just that. Conventional.

So we'll wrap up our Future of Jobs series today with this counter-conventional thought: That for jobs at least, maybe less actually means more.

Adriene Hill reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.

Adriene Hill: Imagine having more time to cook dinner...

Julia Child: And so I'm going to start off with the bacon.

More time to work up a sweat...

Exercise instructor: We're making beautiful legs here today.

More time to ponder the meaning of life...

Person: Hmmmmm...

If you're the sort of person who does those sort of things, it could all be yours -- if you are willing, able or forced to spend a less time at work.

Mike Schiepke: It's freed up a day, so you can do a lot of loose ends and errands in a day that you normally wouldn't do.

Mike Schiepke is an architect in Santa Monica, Calif. We meet outside during his lunch break on a stunning fall day. He's working only four days a week now, after his firm cut jobs and hours. He says there are good things about his slimmed down schedule; he gets to spend more time with his son. It strengthened his family.

Schiepke: We're on the same team, we're team Schiepke.

But the problem is that less time at work means less money, means cutbacks.

Schiepke: We do our own lawn, we wash our own cars, the cable's gone. We even looked into getting rid of the cell phones, 'cause is that a necessity, you know? So we really had to reprioritize.

Economist Juliet Schor, from Boston College, says accepting those cutbacks and making friends with reduced work-hours could help solve the country's unemployment problem.

Juliet Schor: Work-time reduction is an obvious way to go forward, which would allow us to share the work that we have.

The basic idea is that there's a pool of work that needs to get done: If I do a little less and my colleagues do a little less, we can hire someone else. Some other countries have actually tried this out. France, for example, cut its average work week to 35 hours -- with debatable results. Some researchers say the shorter work week added as many as 350,000 jobs. Others find no significant change to unemployment.

Schor says cutting time at work can also be good for the environment -- people working less have less money to buy things and they have more time.

Schor: They can do things more slowly, which tends to be associated with a lower carbon footprint.

Peter VanDoren: The first rule of economics is go after the thing you want to go after, never go after it indirectly, because it won't work out the way you thought it would.

Peter VanDoren is with the libertarian Cato Institute.

VanDoren: If you want more employment, then subsidize firms to create jobs.

VanDoren says culturally being told to work less would be a non-starter. U.S. workers would resent the government saying they could only work a certain number of hours, a point Schor doesn't contest. Change, she says, would need to come by making sure people aren't penalized for working fewer hours. In the Netherlands, for example, employees that work fewer hours can't be denied promotions.

VanDoren, from the Cato Institute, says the whole discussion of reducing work hours is really so "public radio."

VanDoren: It's a middle class and college-educated notion of what work is like.

No doubt, reduced work hours wouldn't be sustainable for the large number of America's working poor, scraping by without any budget flexibility. Schor agrees; you'd have to change the minimum wage, she says.

With the way jobs are structured today, reducing hours is also not in most companies' best interests. My employers will pay the same for benefits -- whether I work 40 hours a week or 32. Still, Schor thinks work-time reduction might catch-on in the U.S., especially if people have a choice, rather than are forced into it, like our architect, Mike Schiepke.

Back out in the California sun, I ask him:

Hill: If your firm came back to you today, later this afternoon, and said if you want, you can come back five days a week. Would you do it?

Schiepke: Yeah, I would do it. Yeah.

He says he'd miss his days off, miss extra time with his son. But he feels committed to his firm, he likes his job, his work and the lifestyle that comes with it.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: You can catch more from our Future of Jobs series on our website. And while you're there, check out our Future-Jobs-O-Matic, the skinny on which jobs will be hot and which ones won't a decade from now.


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