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The Present

Is Working Less the Solution to Being “Workless”?

Louise Tarrant argues less work is not weakness, but a sign of prosperity and a necessity to the coming automation.
No need to recharge at lunchtime – just go home. (Photo credit Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

Louise Tarrant, a union representative of United Voice members, wants us to work less so we can create work for those who don’t have it. However, she believes we need to create a new social contract to help us see the value of less work.

Her paper outlines several pivotal points in history where citizens demanded better, like an 8-hour work day and a 5-day work week. But in our modern society, people still toil for 40 hours or more a week with no guaranteed boost in their quality of life. As Godfrey Moase, the Assistant General Branch Secretary at the National Union of Workers in Melbourne, Australia, said in his own essay for the Green Institute series, “We live within a broken system where there is no necessary connection between hard work and wealth.”

Many believe Universal Basic Income could be a great tool for talking about how we solve many of those inequality issues. However, Tarrant is somewhat ambivalent in how Universal Basic Income will play a role in the future of our society. She’s sees it more as a means by which to create less work for more people. Her main argument for less work has been the point of many: the rise of automation.

Jobs automation has so far moved in two waves since the 19th century: replacing the unpleasant and dangerous, replacing the dull, and soon we’ll have AI capable of replacing employees who make decisions. Jobs are set to slide as our technology advances. 

“Compare 1990 when the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees to 2014 when the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees,” writes Tarrant. “That’s thirty times the value and one tenth the workforce!”

In America, the loss of jobs has hit the heartland the most. Many believe it is a significant factor in Trump’s electoral victory. Would those people be content with working fewer hours, sustained by a base UBI?

Here are a few of Tarrant’s proposals to curtail hours:

  • Cap maximum hours—although this would disproportionally impact male workers as they currently work longer hours;

  • Have a more flexible approach to shorter hours—but this is more likely to increase wage inequality as it likely favours highly skilled and senior positions;

  • Cut the number of working days in a week. Utah recently trialled a four-day week for government workers and, although the trial has since ended, it was liked by the workers and had appreciable and varied impacts from lowering the carbon footprint and reducing commute times to improving health outcomes for the workers involved; or

  • Cut the hours worked per day. Sweden is trialling six-hour shifts in a few places. Early indications are that, like the Canadian Mincome trial of the 1970s, improved health and reduced use of medical services is a noted feature of the trial to date. 

    Find a balancing act between those in society who feel chronically overworked and those who are under- or unemployed seems noble and essential. Tarrant’s preference for dividing the remaining labor opportunities rather than phasing out the human work force altogether is rooted in the idea that people want to work. Receiving a cash stipend may not result in mass idleness, as many fear, but may only have an “incredibly modest effect“.

    Influential British economist John Maynard Keynes viewed reductions in paid working hours optimistically, interpreting such a trend as a sign of great societal advancement. “He projected that the standard of living of the western world would multiply at least four times between 1930 and 2030, by which time people would be working just 15 hours a week,” writes Tarrant.

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