01 September 2017

Progress, Sex, and the 24 Hour Workweek

About 90% of men had a job in 1900. (The Labor Force Participation Rate, or LFPR is the measure of this.)
The workweek was 60 hours.

Nearly the same percentage of men - 86% - had jobs in 1950.
The workweek was 40 hours.

Between 1900 and 1950, the workweek shortened and roughly the same percentage of men had jobs. Productivity gains translated into a shorter workweek rather than fewer jobs.

In 2017, about 63% of men have jobs.
The work week is about 34 hours.

Since 1950, productivity gains have translated into a slightly shorter workweek and a significantly smaller percentage of men with jobs.

To keep the same percentage of men employed would have meant a workweek of 24 hours instead of 34 (or 40).

Let me briefly digress onto the topic of sex.

Reading history made me deeply sympathetic to people who we would today call prudes. Pregnancy and childbirth could easily kill a woman a century ago. What people today may consider, "regular, healthy sex" could mean supporting a dozen children, a woman's life metaphorically lost to the logistics of child rearing if her life isn't first quite literally lost in the act of childbirth. To find sex alarming a century or two ago seems to me a wildly rational impulse. There was nothing casual about sex in this time, fraught as it was with sobering consequences.

The Pill - and more broadly, a variety of safe contraceptives - has changed sex. Technically speaking, given the rate at which women died in childbirth, a healthy sex life 100 years ago probably meant celibacy. Today, with contraceptives, a healthy sex life can mean sex throughout the week. Sex has been largely separated from childbirth and even when childbirth follows, it is much safer for mother and child. Casual sex is no longer an oxymoron.

The separation of sex from the natural consequence of childbirth caused a sexual revolution. For one thing, premarital sex has become fairly common in the West for the simple reason that sex no longer has to mean pregnancy. Everyone has to find and define their own morality in this time of easy contraception but the consequences of casual sex are far less dire than they were a century ago. This has forced people to rethink what they consider moral. You may have traditional or modern views on sex but whatever drives them it no longer has to be wrestling with the inevitability of childbirth.

Now let me return to the topic of work.

There was a time when 90-some percent of the population had to work simply to feed everyone. To have someone in your group slacking off could translate into starvation or malnutrition after harvest. In this period it made sense to be harsh with folks who weren't working. Today, though, productivity advances mean that we can feed everyone with just 2% of the workforce. No one is going to starve because a few guys in the corner are playing solitaire.

Technology has made it easier to be productive. We have a traditional definition of work ethic that includes - among other things - a 40 hour workweek. Technology and management enhancements have challenged that model in the same way that contraceptives have challenged notions of morality. 4 six-hour days could be to us what 5 eight-hour days were to our grandparents. Proof that we don't need everyone working 40 hours a week is that only 73% as many men are working as did in 1950. It's a fact that we don't need as many hours worked to enjoy our current level of prosperity; the question is whether we adjust to that by having fewer men work 40 hour weeks or having the same percentage of men work 24 hour weeks.

Gains in productivity, like the Pill, have challenged traditional notions of morality and ethics. You may have traditional or modern views on work but whatever drives them, it no longer has to be worry that if someone slacks off we won't have enough to eat.

If we were to lower the workweek to 24 hours, it could result in labor force participation rates of over 80% (assuming the same total number of hours worked as we do now with 63% of men working nearly 40 hour weeks).

How could this help? For one thing, it would result in a broader distribution of wages, a correction to growing income inequality. For another, people working 24 hours a week could have time to engage in creative endeavors that are high-risk and high-return. Pursuit of art, music, business startups or any of a number of efforts that are likely to fail but - should they succeed - have the potential to make the individual rich or gratified and positively change society.  More time outside of work could result in more binge watching of Netflix shows but also more socializing, exercise, startups, sex, and creativity. More people with jobs could even translate into lower incarceration rates.

Having sex need not mean facing the risk of childbirth. Cutting back on hours worked need not mean facing the risk of starvation. Progress has broken old linkages and given us choices that previous generations did not have.

What a 24 hour workweek would mean, of course, is a change in the definition of work ethic. That's not a tough thing, though. There was a time just a century ago when we thought it normal to work 6 ten-hour days. Why not change that again to 4 six-hour days? It could be fascinating to see what might happen.

Quick acknowledgement.
One reason LFPR for men has dropped is because the LFPR for women has gone up. It might not make sense for men's LFPR to remain closer to 90% when women's LFPR has nearly doubled (rising from 32.4% in 1948 to 57.3% in 2017, roughly 70 years later). Still, the general principle of shorter workweek as a means to sustain higher LFPR holds.

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