Some Questions about the Ten-Hour Week

Three weeks ago, in response to the IPCC report warning that CO2 emissions had to be reduced to 45% of their 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid the possibility of global temperature rising above 1.5°C, I posted “The IPCC 1.5° C Report and the Ten-Hour Week,” (also posted at Angry Bear) which offered the sketch of a plan for how to do that. I have no illusions that the IPCC or any other prestigious organization will latch on to this idea and seek to flesh it out with concrete policy proposals. In some respects, I offered the Ten-Hour Week more as a thought experiment, a way of thinking about the scope and scale of effort required.

I still think it is a damn good way to think about the problem and actually would be worthy of elaboration if only it wasn’t “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Several of my subsequent EconoSpeak posts — “The Political Economy of the Working Class” “Absolute Decoupling and Relative Surplus Value: Rectification of Names” “Business As Usual: Running on Empty” and “Scratch That” — have in fact been elaborations on the Ten-Hour Week thought experiment and the issues it raises.

I also posted it to the sustainable consumption discussion list, SCORAI, where it got some very perceptive questions from participants. With permission, I am posting the questions and answers below. Thanks for questions, comments and permission to Thomas Love, Professor of Anthropology, Linfield College, Oregon; John de Graaf, film maker and co-author of Affluenza, Seattle, Washington; Anna Berka, Research Fellow, Energy Centre, University of Auckland Business School, New Zealand; and William Rees, Professor Emeritus Faculty of Applied Science School of Community of Regional Planning, UBC, Vancouver, BC.

Tom Love:

Thanks Tom Walker for a compelling thought experiment.  Interestingly compatible with the analysis David Graeber takes in his recent Bullshit Jobs, wondering about the nature of work in late capitalism and why we work so hard, even when over a third of people in the UK and the Netherlands report that their work (for which they are sometimes well remunerated) makes no difference in the world.  The work week could be drastically shrunk with little apparent effect on overall economic performance.

But I’m missing a step in your thinking here.  The kinds of bullshit jobs Graeber documents are almost all white collar bureaucratic positions, whether private or public.  So even taking all your simplifying assumptions into account, why would emissions reduce by a rate corresponding to hours worked?  Presumably agricultural and industrial labor would proceed pretty much as is, in current quantities, no?

John de Graff:

I hope Tom [Walker] won’t mind my jumping in here.  The bureaucratic jobs you mention pay better than many of the production jobs and the people who have them then spend on all sorts of consumer products, travel etc.  It’s the total compensation/spending (eg. per capita GDP) that has the strongest connection to carbon footprint since there is no absolute de-coupling at all, and with relative decoupling, ecological and carbon footprints continue to rise (albeit more slowly) as GDP increases. The spending of the white collar workers drives the increases in production of the agricultural and industrial laborers.  It may not be a 1:1 effect, but Tom is absolutely right here.  A cut in these bullshit jobs will render much overproduction untenable, forcing shorter working hours in the ag and industrial sectors to prevent massive unemployment.  Am I getting this right, Tom?

Reply from Tom Walker (Sandwichman) to Tom Love:

“So even taking all your simplifying assumptions into account, why would emissions reduce by a rate corresponding to hours worked?”

That is an excellent question and my answer is that initially emissions wouldn’t reduce by a rate “corresponding to hours worked” but explaining why they wouldn’t and why that is o.k. anyway would complicate matters more than I want to in a first volley. I am convinced that the first 25% or so of work-time reduction would actually be an efficiency measure that would have little downward effect on final output BUT would also shift investment away from capacity expansion because of the continuing nature of the work-time reductions and higher wage share of income. After that initial 25% or so, there will come declines in output, incomes, consumption and thus emissions resulting directly from, and corresponding to, the reductions in hours. At the lower end emissions reductions may be > 1:1 to reduction in hours.

So to put some imaginary numbers on it (albeit grounded in very recent empirical research), Let’s say the initial 11% reduction in hours in the U.S. corresponds with a 4% reduction in emissions. That might seem disappointing but its something… and it comes with an improvement in “work/life balance.” The second year brings a larger emissions reduction but still less than 1:1. People are meanwhile learning that they don’t need to work as much as they used to to get by. And so on.

Anna Berka:

Hello Tom, all,

Thank you for elaborating the thinking behind limiting working time; that’s the part of the degrowth agenda I’ve not yet been able to get my head around.

Like others in this thread I also have some concerns around the effectiveness, ethics and political feasibility of this proposal that you may have already thought long and hard about:

  • Your reasoning seems to rest on the fact that a large number of middle and upper income earners could benefit from less work and less stuff, and don’t know it – a fair point. It would result in downsizing, more family time, more community time – all good things. But limiting work hours hits low wage earners hardest; people who spend a higher proportion of their income on power, food and commuting, and are already just getting by. In many emerging economies or liberal market economies, low income earners may be working three jobs to cover the basic cost of living, and work life balance would seem of secondary concern. Under the scenario that you set out, it is likely that supply constraints would translate into higher prices (although to the extent to which there is unemployment, production could continue by simply hiring more workers on shorter term contracts) further exacerbating the problem. People would take to the streets.
  • It doesn’t affect the super rich at all, and certainly not in proportion to their footprint – because they are not employed by anybody and do not work in the formal sense, except to reinvest their money.
  • It affects start-ups, social enterprises that are attempting to deliver positive change for instance by investing in clean technology (ie. doesn’t it also put a break on the kind of innovation that we need?). In short, it seems a very indirect/convoluted way to reduce consumption of high emission goods, compared to for instance a carbon tax, which automatically directs investment towards low emission production.

Like many other ideas in this area, we seem to hit a wall when consumption reduction measures fundamentally transgress notions of individual freedom that underpin democratic society today; and that now seem to be getting in the way of a livable future…
But limiting work hours hits low wage earners hardest; people who spend a higher proportion of their income on power, food and commuting, and are already just getting by.

Reply from Tom W. to Anna Berka:

That is an excellent point — and one that I have indeed thought and researched long and hard about. During the 19th century movement for the 8 eight hour day, Mary Steward coined a ditty: “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay.” Her husband, Ira, and his disciple, George Gunton worked out a theoretical explanation of this apparent paradox that was subsequently confirmed, empirically by the industrialist Thomas Brassey and theoretically by the neo-classical economist Sydney J. Chapman.

To put it bluntly, the low wages of low wage earners are substantially a RESULT of overly long hours. Reducing the hours of work does not automatically increase the pay but it removes a formidable obstacle to higher pay. Whether they understand this or not, employers, RESIST shorter hours because they give workers more leverage in determining wages and other working conditions including subsequent reductions in hours. It establishes a virtuous cycle for worker power, which the employers understandably view with alarm. “Mainstream” economists have taken the side of employers to the extent of ignoring or suppressing the theoretical work in economics that supports the shorter work time argument and slandering policy proposals as “fallacious/”

Yes, I have indeed thought long and hard (and longer and harder) about this and have written a background manuscript that surveys the arguments against shorter working time and their origins.

John de Graaf:

Anna, It shouldn’t be either or.  For lower paid workers, the loss of hours should be at no loss of pay, with greater progressive taxes and earned income credits.  I for one would support a basic income guarantee as well.  But there can be no de-growth without cutting working hours.  Tom has been right on this for a long time.  And if it happens slowly, people get used to the income reductions (except for the poor).  see my piece, “Life Away From the Rat-Race.

Bill Rees:

Friends –

Think about this. So far, this discussion assumes all else remains constant.  However, if the world takes the recent IPCC report seriously, and reduces fossil fuel (FF) use by nearly half in the next couple of decades, then there will be a massive shortage of energy (demand is actually ‘scheduled’ to rise by a quarter or more).  The fact is that wind, solar, etc., cannot substitute for many uses of FF and even if they could, the rate of investment required is beyond reach.  In short, there may well be a great increase in the demand for human labour just to provide the necessities.

Of course, if the world doesn’t take IPCC seriously, we’ll see 3 Celsius degrees warming and catastrophic impacts that will ..

(fill in your own blanks)

This should help.

Reply from Tom Walker to Bill Rees,

I agree that transition away from fossil fuels will require more hours of necessary work as well as far, far less hours of bullshit work and fossil-fueled work. In my thought experiment I conceded that “some of these reductions in working time could be reversed by de-industrialization — that is the substitution of less energy intensive but more labor intensive methods of production” but for the sake of brevity didn’t go into the complexity of that de-industrialization.

I am not actually advocating a Utopia of leisure, although it may seem like it. There are two more salient aspects to my thought experiment. One is the effect that a phased, coerced regulation of working time could have on transition from fossil fuel, with the transition to fossil fuel serving as the precedent. The other is translating the intangible and unimaginable — the 45% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions — into something that people can imagine: hours of work. Nobody sees or experiences carbon dioxide emissions. Almost everybody experiences work. The global carbon dioxide emissions intensity of paid employment has been remarkably stable over the past quarter century. So REPRESENTING tons of carbon dioxide as hours of work makes quantitative sense.

One thing that I try to keep in mind at all time is Georgescu-Roegen’s warning against the idea that there is a “blueprint for ecological salvation.” The “ten-hour week” is not meant as a blueprint. It is meant in the spirit of G-R’s eight-point minimal bioeconomic program, which concludes, incidentally, with the admonition:

…we should cure ourselves of what I have been calling “the circumdrome of the shaving machine,” which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on ad infinitum. This change will call for a great deal of recanting on the part of all those professions which have lured man into this empty infinite regress. We must come to realize that an important prerequisite for a good life is a substantial amount of leisure spent in an intelligent manner.