Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Arguments for a four-day work week


“We should work to live, not live to work”, declared John McDonnell in his speech to the Labour Party Conference. He followed this up with a commitment to the goal of a 32-hour, four-day work week. The goal, McDonnell stated, was to be achieved within ten years, and importantly, was to be realised with no loss of pay.
 
The reduction of the working week to four-days would be truly transformative. Indeed, it would represent a radical break with the dominant work culture that exists in our contemporary capitalist society.
 
Yet, its radicalism also presents challenges. Will business accept a cut in the working week? What kind of legislation will be required to achieve the cut? Ultimately, can capitalism be adapted to accommodate a four-day week or will it require us to imagine – and create – a future beyond capitalism?
 
The case for working less
 
The arguments for working less are compelling. Shorter work hours would free up time for us do and be things outside of work. It would enable to live better lives.
 
Evidence shows how longer work hours are associated with various forms of sickness – both physical and mental. The reduction of work hours, in this case, could help to raise the health and well-being of workers.
 
Beyond personal benefits, we could mitigate the effects of climate change by working less. The work-spend treadmill has an environmental cost that we could resolve by curbing the time we devote to work.
 
Less work could also pay for itself by giving rise to higher productivity. Rested bodies and minds make for more productive hours and offer the opportunity to produce what we need with more free time.
 
Finally, we might also work better. If we eliminate hours of drudgery, we could leave more time for us to enjoy more rewarding work. Reducing working hours is as much about enhancing the quality of work as about reducing its burden.
 
Work’s persistence
 
But the system in which we live keeps on pressing us to work more. It was once assumed that capitalism would develop in ways that would deliver shorter work hours. Back in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously dreamed of a 15 hour work week by 2030. He thought that this outcome would be achieved through c no fundamental reform of capitalism.
 
In reality, however, hours of work in capitalist economies have remained stubbornly high and have even shown signs of increase (especially since the global financial crisis). Large differences in work hours exist between countries, to be sure. German workers enjoy shorter work hours than their US counterparts, for example.
 
But no country stands anywhere close to achieving a 15- or even 30-hour work week in the next ten years. Indeed, on current trends, most capitalist economies look set to have average working weeks more than double Keynes’s prediction.
 
The reasons for this stagnation in work hours are varied. On the one hand, there is the issue of power. Workers cannot hope to secure shorter hours if they lack the bargaining power to realise them. The decline of unions and shift towards the ‘shareholder value model’ of management has resulted in  many people working longer, or the same hours, for lower pay.
 
On the other hand, the continued force of consumerism has acted as a prop to the work ethic. Advertising and product innovation have created a culture where longer hours have been accepted as normal, even while they have inhibited the freedom of workers to live well.
 
Making it happen
 
The challenge for any political party that is committed to the goal of working less is to overcome the above obstacles. Notably, the Labour Party has rejected an economy-wide curb on work time. Instead, it favours a sectoral approach, via a renewed system of collective bargaining.
 
McDonnell has suggested that working hours (along with wage rates and conditions) could be agreed at a sector level through negotiation between employers and trade unions. Any agreements brokered on reduced working hours could then become legally binding. This approach, in some ways, follows the lead of collective bargaining arrangements in Germany, where employers and trade unions have agreed on shorter working weeks.
 
The problem here will be reviving collective bargaining in the context of low union membership. Some sectors in services (such as the retail and care sectors), for example, have a very limited union presence and curbing work hours may be difficult to achieve under this policy.
 
McDonnell has also proposed the creation of a ‘Working Time Commission’ with the power to recommend the government increases statutory leave entitlements as quickly as possible without increasing unemployment’. This is more promising in that it aims to create a new debate – and ideally a new consensus – around the case for shortening work time across the economy as a whole. One effect of this Commission might be the recommendation and implementation of a four-day work week in all sectors.
 
A wider policy agenda for shorter work hours is set forth in a new report written by Lord Skidelsky, which was commissioned by McDonnell. While there are areas to disagree on, the report itself – and the policy commitment of the Labour Party – mark a significant step forward in the discussion of reducing work time. Generally, there now seems greater pressure to secure a four-day or even three-day work week.
 
Still the barriers to change remain formidable. As seen in the reception by industry groups to Labour’s policy announcement, business will take some convincing about the merits of a shorter working week.
 
But the scepticism of business only shows how far we need to rethink the economy and life more generally. If we continue to work as long as we do, we will not just keep on damaging ourselves, but also our planet. Working less, in short, is not some luxury, but a necessary part of our progress as human beings.


** This article first appeared at the Conversation

Friday, 25 January 2019

Davos: why measures of economic progress must consider the quality of work on offer

Davos offers a place for the rich and not-so-famous to meet and exchange views on the present and future of capitalism. As in previous years, the theme of automation and the “fourth industrial revolution” has been a core of the 2019 meeting. The concern is over how technology might help to raise economic growth and add to prosperity.

Lip service, of course, is paid to wider social and ethical goals, but in truth the central concern is with the needs of the global economy. The worship of growth (measured by GDP) dominates proceedings.

But this focus diverts attention from what are pressing problems in society. In particular, it misses the costs of work. Far from the ski slopes of Davos are real people struggling in dull jobs and on stagnant incomes. Any consideration of how technology will destroy or create jobs needs to recognise that the quality of the work we do is also important.

The fourth industrial revolution includes the rise of artificial intelligence, 3D printers and driverless cars. While many fear the disappearance of jobs due to digital automation, debate at Davos recognises the capacity for technology to create new jobs. It will present new sources of demand and new work opportunities such as engineers to design and service the new digital architecture.

Yet, the prospect of jobs growth is itself a problem if it means workers working in more low quality jobs. If technology erodes the skill content of work, drives down wages, and raises the duration and intensity of work, then workers may face the prospect of having to undertake work that is much worse than now.

Work realities

The rise of the so-called “gig economy” shows the darker side of technological innovation. Advanced economies have seen a steady decline in skilled manufacturing jobs and the growth of low-skilled zero-hours contracts jobs in their place. Meanwhile, the output of large corporations continues to grow, showing how technology can be harnessed for profit-making, at the expense of the welfare of workers.

The hard realities of work in modern society speak to the limits of visions of progressive change via automation. They highlight, in particular, how technology may add to the problems of work, while sustaining people in work.

The focus on economic growth, as measured by GDP, does not help here. Consider an economy where GDP is rising. Growth may be fuelled by rising employment, higher work force participation, and/or longer work hours. But this fails to consider the costs of the work involved. The fact that GDP may depend on a substantial number of workers being exposed to toxic conditions at work is obscured. And the process of generating GDP growth often has an environmental impact, including more pollution and waste.

Automation as distraction

At Davos and other forums, it is convenient for big business to focus on the topic of automation. It creates, on the one hand, a sense of fear about the future of work. This fear is useful for capital owners because it helps to suppress wages and reduce demands for better work, as people become just so grateful to have a job at all.

The focus on automation, on the other hand, helps to win support for the status quo. Capitalism, so the story goes, is not to blame for the ills of work, but rather these ills stem from the seemingly natural processes of technological change. Technology, in this way, becomes a useful mechanism to hide the specific injustices of work linked to existing corporate structures and practices.

Davos promotes the fourth industrial revolution slogan, in part because it reflects the interests of the class that it represents.

In our society, technology does not guarantee – as it should – more leisure time and more meaningful work; rather it offers more work and, for many, greater drudgery. Paradoxically, the prospect is of work continuing, while technology advances.

The reason for this paradox relates at an essential level to unequal power. It reflects who owns and controls technology – how powerful capital owners can use it in the service of profit generation. The discussion at Davos about technological change remains closed to voices demanding real change. Yet it is only by reimagining technology – its ownership and control – that we can create a better automated future.

Meanwhile, concerns about sustaining economic prosperity must incorporate measures of the quality of work available to people. Beyond growth, we need to embrace measures of progress that capture how well work fits us as human beings. Some useful attempts to define the quality of work exist. The challenge is to use these in conjunction with other measures such as GDP to come up with broader indicators of economic and social progress. That way, we might realise ways of working and living that are to the benefit of all.


*** This blog was originally post at the Conversation

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Stop working on your commute – it doesn’t benefit anyone

Our journey to and from the office has been taken over by work. Rather than reading a book, catching up with the news, or just relaxing, our commute time is now increasingly spent reading and replying to work-related emails. The transport we use to get to and from our jobs has become another venue for work.

The sad thing is that we consent to this extra work, despite it not being remunerated. Hours spent commuting are unpaid – they add nothing to our bank balances, though they save our employers the expense of higher wages.

The extension of work into commute time reflects the presence of an intrusive and pernicious “always-on” culture. It reflects an environment where we are enslaved to work, even when not physically in the office. Our busyness, however, can only come at the expense of the quality of our lives and our health. We must fight to resist it.

Work-life imbalance

Research shows how workers fit work into commute time, in part, to ease the burden of work. Answering emails on route to work can help to save time once you’re at work. Equally email can be answered on the way home from work to ease the pressure of work during the next working day. Work can also be done on the move that could not be finished at work.

But here “savings” of time and effort are likely to be illusory. Employers are not going to cut email traffic just because workers are replying to emails on the way to and from work. To the contrary the incentive is for employers to encourage email traffic outside of regular hours in order to exploit the free work of workers.

Work “saved” during commute time, in this case, may translate into more work during paid work time. Workers again may be in the position of doing more work, for no extra pay. Out-of-hours working implies that work cannot be fitted into paid hours. It suggests that workers are overworked (and underpaid) for the work they do.

Always-on culture

New technology enables us to connect with our work, beyond normal hours. Laptops and iPhones mean we have instant access to our work and workplaces. Wifi on trains and buses has helped to turn commuting into work time. But technology itself does not explain why work is performed outside of regular hours. For that we need to look at organisational culture.

Organisations increasingly demand that their employees give their bodies and lives to work. Staying late at work is a badge of honour. Presenteeism – the act of being present at work for longer than is required – is rife in workplaces and reflects on the culture of overwork that is endemic in modern society.

Working during commute time is simply an extension of the same culture. It demonstrates the way work has taken over our lives. We find time to work even when not at work because we are exposed to a culture that venerates hard work.

Few benefits

Yet, all this extra work seems to bring few economic benefits. Productivity remains low in the UK despite workers working all hours. Commuters are no more productive for answering emails on the go. Indeed productivity is likely to be lower due to the stressed out and exhausting nature of long commute and work schedules.

Research continues to show the negative health effects of long hours of work. By working more we suffer ill-health, physical as well as mental. We also neglect our families, friends and communities. And we lose the ability to think and act beyond the roles we fill as workers.

Work may now be a normal part of commuting time but its performance imposes high costs on us and society more generally. In a rational world, we would move to ban out-of-hours email, not just to protect free time, but also to safeguard health. Beyond this we would look to challenge the hegemony of work and promote ways of living that are less work-centred. Cutting work hours would be the only sane way of restoring any semblance of balance between jobs and life.

*** This article was originally posted at the Conversation

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The need to work less is a matter of life and death

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century. This fight was – and remains – a quest for a broader ideal, namely the achievement of a life beyond work.

Yet, on this May bank holiday, we are struck by the lack of progress towards this ideal. Work has not diminished in society. Rather, it has continued to dominate our lives, often in ways that are detrimental to our health and well-being. Many US workers have found themselves working more than eight hours a day – the dream of working less promoted by their forebears has turned into a nightmare of long hours of work, for no extra pay. UK workers have not fared much better, at least in recent years, facing lower real pay for the same or longer hours of work.

The irony of course is that capitalism was supposed to offer something different. It was meant to offer a life of more leisure and free time. Technology was supposed to advance in ways that would bring bank holidays every month, possibly even every week. Luminaries like economist John Maynard Keynes dreamt of a 15-hour work week by 2030. Yet capitalism has produced the exact opposite. Its effect has been to preserve and extend work. It has also created problems in the content and meaning of work.

The circumstances are such that rather than idle away and enjoy our time off on bank holidays we are likely to spend it exhausted, stressed, and annoyed about a world that is less than what it can be.

Work’s not working

As an example of the problem of modern work, consider a recent report from the industry group, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). It showed how increasing numbers of workers are turning up for work while ill. They are displaying what is termed “presenteeism”. Of the more than 1,000 organisations that were surveyed, 86% reported workers attending work while ill. This number was up from 26% in 2010, when the survey was last undertaken.

The CIPD also found high numbers of workers prepared to work while on holiday. Work, it seems, extends to time when workers are neither paid nor physically at work.

One reason for this behaviour is the pervasive work ethic. The idea of work remains strong and prevents any hint of slacking off. The work ethic can reflect – in the case of some middle-class jobs – high intrinsic rewards, but it also reflects on societal norms and imperatives that privilege and sanctify work. Needless to say, these norms and imperatives suit the material interests of employers.

Another reason for workers’ commitment to work is the pressure of financial necessity. Stagnant and falling real wages mean workers have to keep working in order to live. Keynes’s dream of a 15-hour work week by 2030 assumed benevolent employers passing on the productivity gains made from technology in the form of shorter work hours. It did not contemplate a world where employers would pocket the gains for themselves, at the expense of more work for workers.

The demand of employers that we work more has been intensified by changes in technology that have bound us to work. Smartphones mean instant access to email and offer a constant connection to work. Being on call when not at work is part of the modern work culture.

There is also a direct power aspect in the sense that work now is often precarious and insecure. People dare not show a lack of commitment for fear of losing their jobs. How better to show commitment than to attend work while ill and work during holidays?

The modern phenomenon of presenteeism is a pathology linked to a workplace setting where workers lack control. It reflects a situation that is imposed rather than chosen and one that is operated against employees’ interests.

Killing time at work

Yet all the evidence is that long hours are bad for health and ultimately productivity. Workers working long hours are more likely to have a heart attack, suffer a stroke, and experience depression. Coming to work ill is also likely to make you feel more ill. And could make others around you ill.

Recent research from the US suggests that toxic workplaces (excessive hours, stressful work regimes) are a public health disaster. These workplaces have been shown to shorten lives – they are literally killing workers.

The alternative is for employers to reorganise work. Evidence suggests shorter work hours can boost health and productivity, providing potential win-win outcomes for employers and workers.

Given such evidence, why do employers keep pushing workers to work more? The simple answer relates to the capitalist system itself. The imperative for profit translates into a drive to work more. Technology, for similar reasons, becomes a tool for control and for pumping out more work.

While employers may benefit from less work, they work within a system that prevents this goal. Working less is inimical to a system where profit matters more than the pursuit of well-being in and beyond work. Deaths through overwork are a necessary by-product.

The May Day bank holiday ought to be a time for celebration, a recognition of how far we have come as a society in reducing work. Instead, it brings into sharp relief a world not won – a world lost to a system that privileges profit over people.

If we want a better future, we need to continue the collective struggle for less work. Our lives may depend on it.

*** This article is also published at the Conversation

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Confronting the power of finance: towards definancialisation


The tenth anniversary of the global financial crisis (GFC) should have been a time to reflect on the successes made in economic policy. It should have been a time to celebrate the progress made in building a more robust economic system that delivers benefits to the greater part of society.

Yet, ten years on, many of the same fragilities and inequities remain as before the GFC. The conditions for sustainable economic growth have continued to elude policy makers – indeed new tensions (e.g. low productivity and sluggish wage growth) have emerged, suggesting that lessons have not been learned from the past.

In the UK at least, economic growth remains reliant on consumer spending (and borrowing). Policies to revive investment and trade have largely failed and the UK economy remains, as in the past, unbalanced and unequal in its outcomes. The fall in real pay since the GFC is a stand out feature of the UK economy and highlights how the recovery in GDP has coincided with deepening hardship for many.

The problems of the UK, like those in some other countries, reflect on deeper issues relating to the dominance of a particular economic ideology. This ideology entails faith in the necessity of austerity, resists an active industrial policy, and gives autonomy to financial interests in the running of firms. The ideology is consistent with a ‘financialised capitalism’ that eschews higher investment and lower inequality in favour of higher shareholder returns and soaring incomes for the few. It is an ideology that ultimately results in more uneven growth and frequent crises.

If, as argued below, the many in society are to prosper in the future, our focus should be on de-financialising the economy.

Financialisation 

The notion of ‘financialisation’ has developed out of heterodox economics and political economy. It captures the spectacular rise of financial activities, financial markets, and financial interests within economy, society, and culture. Financialisation has been a secular and global process over the past thirty years or so, recently encompassing the GFC and ensuing period of austerity in capitalist societies. It has though been highly variegated being more evident in certain countries (e.g. the UK and the US) than others and its nature and extent has reflected on the institutional environment within individual countries.

The sources of financialisation rest with shifts in policy and politics. Policies of deregulation and privatisation, implemented by national governments, have given power and influence to finance. The rise in finance has often been at the expense of the decline of industry and has coincided with rising inequality as the rewards from growth have flowed disproportionately to the owners of capital. At a political level, financialisation has been marked by a commitment to a laissez faire approach. Such an approach has been manifest in the greater reliance on markets and private transactions in the allocation of resources including basic utilities and in the emergence of a more individualistic culture.

Financialisation has also entailed shifts at the level of the firm and in corporate governance. In particular, it has been associated with the rise of the ‘shareholder value model’. The latter has privileged the interests of shareholders above those of other stakeholders, most notably workers. Indeed, the pursuit of shareholder value has implied cuts in labour costs, and in practice, has meant reduced wages and worse terms and conditions for workers.

The financialisation of firms has seen economic returns rise through financial engineering rather than real engineering. Owners have made money through buying back shares in their firms. Here money has been taken out of firms and used to enrich owners at the expense of reinvestment within the firms themselves. Workers, on the other hand, have faced squeezes on their real incomes and pressures to curb benefits (e.g. pensions), in the name of shareholder value maximisation.

The point is that contemporary capitalism has faced forces of financialisation that have pushed in the direction of a more unequal economy. These forces have meant enrichment for a few and hardship for the many. They have, though, created the conditions for crises and system breakdown – the GFC revealed the contradictions of financialisation and its potential to founder in a dramatic fashion. 

Low productivity, low investment, and low wages: an unholy trinity 

The period since the GFC, however, has seen the same conditions be reproduced in the economy. Financialisation, in this sense, has not been challenged – to the contrary, if anything, it has been renewed and reshaped. It has though created new problems in its wake, problems that once again promise future disruption and potentially crises.

Of all the problems that now exist, the stand out one remains the problem of low productivity. Globally, productivity has been sluggish and shows little sign of improvement. This is surprising, given the modern stress on the ‘rise of the robots’. Yet, ironically, the problem now seems to be one of a lack of automation – in short, robots are not advancing at a sufficiently rapid rate to boost productivity.

Low productivity is linked to two other problems, namely those of low wages and low investment. The lack of growth in productivity is holding back wage growth, while low investment is restraining productivity growth. There are also feedback effects, in the sense that low wages create disincentive effects for firms to invest in capital – why should firms bother investing in new technology when they can meet demand by hiring more cheaper priced labour? Low wages, too, create a disincentive for workers to expend higher effort and lead to a higher quit rate that harms productivity.

These problems have only been magnified by the rise of more precarious forms of employment. In the UK, for example, the rise of involuntary self-employment has created a more disposable workforce that employers can hire at will. Labour protections enjoyed by full time workers have been avoided in an effort to lower firm costs. The beneficiaries have been capital owners; the losers have been the owners of labour power. Indeed, the latter have suffered the longest squeeze in real wages for over a century and a half. The move to ‘full employment’ in the UK has been matched by a rise in poverty pay. It has also coincided with slow and lagging productivity growth – a problem that has exacerbated existing weaknesses of low pay.

The fundamental problem here is the political economy of capitalism. The fact that capital – in particular, financial capital – has power over labour makes it difficult to break free of the vicious cycle of low productivity, low investment, and low wages. Rather the unequal balance of power embeds and perpetuates this cycle in ways that create depressive conditions in economy and society.

Financialisation, in short, remains an impediment to sustaining growth with lower inequality. Indeed, its persistence makes it more likely that the economy will experience unbalanced growth, yet higher inequality, and ultimately a further crash. The prospect of another crisis puts into perspective the perversity of the system in which we continue to live. 

De-financialising the economy 

The answer to the problems of the system lie in system-reversal. It entails no less than the reversal of financialisation and the move to a ‘de-financialised’ state wherein the economy provides the conditions for sustainable economic growth and for enhanced well-being.

An economy that works for all is one that sets limits on the power of finance. It is an economy where policy makers enact policies to support industry, infrastructure, and technology in a direct way. It is one where the state provides certainty over investment and over the future course of the economy. It is one where the state takes the lead in ensuring that inequality is reduced and the ownership of productive assets is fairly and democratically distributed.

De-financialisation, in this sense, implies a proactive industrial policy, higher taxes on income and wealth, and changes in ownership. In the latter case, it implies a move away from the shareholder value model and towards a system of shared ownership with representation from workers on boards and in decision-making. In the UK, it means challenging the dominant power of finance and seeking ways to engage workers in ownership and management functions.

Addressing problems of low productivity, low wages, and low investment requires a holistic approach that tackles the failures of the financialised system of capitalism. It requires a move to a more democratic system wherein the interests of the many count for more than the few.

The barriers, economic as well as political, to de-financialisation are formidable. Indeed they necessitate fundamental institutional reform. Yet, these barriers should not deter us from seeking to overcome them. To the contrary, they should galvanise us to go forward in the pursuit of a better system that promises to secure a higher standard of living and of life for the majority.





*** This article was originally published at the European Financial Review