Forty Hours of Obsolescence

We are trying to live in the 1940s, clinging to a 40-hour work week and to ever-diminishing wages on which no one can reasonably live.

It is no longer possible for everyone to work 40 hours. Pay for most work has eroded, and millions of hard-working people now live in poverty because they are grossly underpaid. How we address these linked conditions literally determines whether we will have an American democracy worthy of the name, since we already have the greatest inequality of all OECD nations.

The capitalist system works automatically to make the situation worse, which I’ll explain below. It’s worth reminding ourselves at this point that there was a time before capitalism, and there will be a time after capitalism. But right now we have capitalism, and we must find ways to make its benefits work for everyone if we can.

The computer is replacing work hours
at every point in the working world.

We are at a tipping point in technological advancement. Labor saving technology, most of it derived from the computer, is replacing workers at an unprecedented rate in every part of the working world. The computer now performs thousands of tasks formerly done by paid labor, and have reached the point where they are able to reason within limits, and to devise ways to improve their own performance. There are profound consequences in the world of work.

The overall result is a de facto work week that is shorter than the “standard” 40 hours simply because there is less total labor to perform. The choice before us is either for working hours to be divided among everyone who needs a job, or a limited number of people can be paid to work 40 hours and the rest supported by government welfare programs. Few people think the latter is a viable option.

The shorter de facto work week should bring us obvious life improvements, but so far it has not because we have failed to understand that a shorter work week is necessary. Instead, we have ever fewer people working, pressure toward greater permanent unemployment, and increasing economic inequality. And this will get continually worse until we do something about it.

Capitalism is not only failing to help us enter this new era, but the capitalist imperatives function to make things worse. This is because the entire goal of capitalism is profit, and all profit goes to the owners. Workers do not share in the profit, nor is their wage raised when productivity increases. As a group, in fact, workers are punished for increased productivity because some good workers become unemployed when productivity improves, while those that remain do the work formerly done by more people, but get the same pay, or less.

The 40-hour work week is obsolete.
There is no longer enough total work available
to allow everyone to work forty hours.

The inherent capitalist pressure for lower wages with increased unemployment is exactly the opposite of what is needed for socio-economic health, a negative factor that is made worse by austerity programs that kill jobs outright. If we are to have equality, but fewer hours in the work week, the hourly wage must be higher, not lower. It will be no easy political task to achieve both of these aims at once, but if they don’t happen we will in time have an intolerable plutocracy and far too much costly unemployment and poverty.

There is nothing sacred about the forty hour week. It’s a political construct. A 72-hour week was once the norm, and John Maynard Keynes himself predicted that by 2030 we should be working fifteen hours a week. The 40-hour week, which came about after 1937, is now obsolete, and is getting us deeper and deeper into trouble because there is no longer enough total work available to allow everyone to work forty hours. This, of course, should be welcome, but it also heralds a period of adjustment that will create great difficulties until we figure out how to bring it about equitably. The key word is “equitably”.

It is neither democratic nor economically practical to have a nation where a lot of people are permanently unemployed, yet this is what will happen without a shorter work week because rapidly increasing “productivity” boils down to ever fewer employees and ever increasing unemployment. We see frequent examples of the process in the news, when a whole class of workers such as toll takers is replaced by electronic devices.

We must be able to earn enough
with fewer hours of work.

Neither can we have a nation where large numbers earn inadequate wages, and this is occurring for two reasons: improved productivity does not result in higher wages, since profit goes to the capitalists. The record of the past three decades shows greatly increased productivity but stagnant or falling wages. Also, common labor is crucial but so badly underpaid that millions of full time workers live in poverty. We must have a nation where everyone who needs a job can find one that pays enough to stay out of poverty while working a standard work week of fewer than 40 hours.

It is not the rich who determine the quality of a democracy, it is those who earn the lowest incomes. If we are to have a democracy worthy of our founders’ vision, no full-time worker may remain in poverty because of low wages. If we are to have full employment, we must understand that the 40-hour work week is as obsolete as the 72-hour week was in 1937. We will only have equality when Living Wage and a shorter work week become the law of the land.

We haven’t even started talking about it.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. We have also become so damn efficient that we are no longer effective. I, for one, would rather see 100 farmers managing 50 acres sustainably, than one farmer managing 5,000 acres unsustainably. We have to start asking the hard questions about what jobs can be eliminated with no negative externalities, and those we eliminated for efficiency reasons but in their elimination caused larger problems.


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