The Conflict Between Work and Equality

Leave aside for the time being the decades-long theft of our wealth by the mega-rich. That’s a different issue. Just think about the relationship between work and equality.

When new technology comes on the scene, jobs are lost. Such job displacement is an expected part of any modernization, but we are losing jobs to new technology at a rate far greater than ever before. This is because of computer development. Computers are as close to the universal machine as we’re likely to get. They are used everywhere, and affect every part of the working world. Unfortunately, this loss of jobs is far greater than we will be able to accommodate. We have crossed the Rubicon, and we can’t go back. We must do something innovative.

We are losing jobs to new technology
at a rate far greater than ever before.

It has become impossible to have a standard 40-hour work week with full employment, because there are more people who need to earn income than the number of jobs that will ever be available. Said another way, there aren’t enough needed working hours to satisfy the need for work. And this is before wide use of the new generation of industrial robots, which displace jobs wholesale.

The most promising way to resolve this difference is to reduce the work week, probably to 20-30 hours, and to find ways that these workers can thrive on their earnings. One way to look at it is that it is a blessing of modernization, just as the 40-hour work week was an advance in the era of jobs of 12-16 hour days, six days a week. How wonderful that we can have more time to ourselves.

But there’s a problem, Houston. How will people be paid enough to live on if they work less? In fact, this is a very large and very complex problem, because people at the low end of the economic scale are already grossly underpaid. This is one of the reasons for our present high inequality, the other main one being the skyrocketing wealth of the mega-rich.

With a shorter work week,
how much will people be paid?

Under our present circumstances, buying retirement and health care and all other needs is not possible for many millions. If government programs are reduced or shut down according to Republican plans these numbers will at least double. At present, none of the millions making minimum wage can afford rent anywhere in the country. Minimum wage is only about a third of what is needed. Nobody earning an average wage can afford to buy all the things Republicans say they must provide for themselves: life’s essentials, retirement savings, and health care. The future will be worse regardless of the political direction we take.

With large numbers of people unemployed or underemployed, there is no upward market pressure on wages that would allow people to do what Republicans say they should do; in fact, the pressure on wages is downward. The only way that workers might earn enough is for the federal government to establish new norms that reduce the hours of the normal work week and increase the hourly wage to a level that would make this level of living possible.

But current wages for low-income jobs with a 40-hour work week would need to be three times greater for this to happen. If the work week were reduced to, say, 20 hours, the new minimum wage would need to be six times greater than at present. This is not going to happen. There needs to be new ways to provide security that don’t depend on wages. Among the possibilities are various kinds of shared wealth and government sponsored health insurance.

So this is what we have: fading numbers of jobs make a shorter work week imperative; the only way workers can pay for what they must buy is to earn significantly more. Since unemployment will probably remain high without these changes, the only possible way to solve the conflict is for the government to establish a new minimum wage and maximum work week, and find new ways for people to earn enough money. This will not be easy.


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