The issue of wealth and income inequality is one of the central debates in US politics today and experts believe this is due to the fact that most of the country is sick of being poor. Inequality and poverty are not new problems, of course — but it is strange that they are problems for the wealthiest nation in history. Despite the abundance made possible by technological progress, a person working full-time at minimum-wage cannot afford to rent a 2-bedroom apartment in any US state. While more wealth is created per work-hour today than people would have dreamed of only a century ago, the daily toil expected of working classes is about the same. An hour of labor in 2017 may produce ten times more value than an hour in 1940 and yet workers still clock in for the same length of time — or more. And there, beneath material poverty is an equal injustice of time poverty — an inequality of days and of the hours which make up people’s lives.
Money Is Time:
Time Poverty & the Distribution of Hours
During pre-industrial times of scarcity, bullying every last villager into long hours of farm-labor may have prevented starvation occasionally — but it is now [current year] and it is absurd that full-time work cannot put a roof over a person’s head. In 1930, the economic bottom line was that 1 US farmer fed about 9.8 people which meant 9.3% of the population had to be farm-workers to produce enough food for everyone. Today, 1 farmer feeds 155 people on average and — despite that 1,481% increase in labor productivity — workdays are just as long as in 1930 and the pay is still just enough to get by.
After 80 years of struggle, FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 and the 8-hour day became the reality for many by 1940. Today, the wealth produced per work-hour has risen by 400% overall since the ’40s but the average workweek is now a half-hour longer. And if a 40-hour workweek for a decent living was fair in the ’40s, then there’s a fairly decent chance that workers today are being worked over.
But what would a fair deal look like today? How long would a US workweek be if work-hours were split up more evenly over the total workforce and how might the rising potential for labor-automation fit in? Let’s take a look at the numbers…
The Mass Workweek:
How Many Hours Do Workers Work?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 146 million US Americans held jobs ( or held two or three ) in 2016. About 1/4th of them worked over full-time at an average of 41 or more hours each week, while half worked 35 to 40 hours and another 1/4th spent fewer than 34 hours on the clock. Overall, the US workweek comes to an average 38.7-hours per-person for both full and part-time workers and a 42.5 hour average among the majority working full-time. By multiplying the BLS’ numbers for total at-work by their average hours, the combined workweek for all US wage and salary-earners — or the “mass workweek” — comes out to about 5.66 billion hours.
The Potential Labor Force at Full-Employment
The official US unemployment rate is a bunch of baloney and even the mainstream news has called them out on it — in fact, the official rate is so wildly unhelpful that researchers at Gallup created a more accurate measure for “real unemployment.” The official unemployment rate leaves out “discouraged workers” ( anyone who hasn’t searched for jobs in 4 weeks ) and it includes the severely underemployed ( 1hr/week counts as a “job” ). Luckily, the census has all of the numbers needed to estimate the size of the able-bodied, working-age population:
Total US Population: 323,127,513
Ages 15 & Under ( legal age to work is 16): 69,437,284
Ages 66 & Above ( retirement age): 45,753,305
Working-Age, w/ Disability: 23,553,965
(Total Pop.) – (≤15yrs) – (≥65yrs) – (Disabled) = Able, Working-Age US Americans
323,127,513 – 69,437,284 – 45,753,305 – 23,553,965= 184,382,959 or ~184.4 million
Now — if the mass workweek was split up evenly between the able, working-age population in a hypothetical situation of full-employment — the workweek would be about 30.7 hours and poverty caused by joblessness would be over.
The Automation Potential:
Robot-Apocalypse or a Future Free of Toil?
After studying 2,000+ work-activities involved in performing 800 different jobs, researchers at McKinsey Global Institute have concluded it is possible to automate nearly half of all work-hours in the US. According to the study, 45% of all activities workers are paid to perform could be automated today with technology that already exists — and some of that technology performs better than the humans! Neoliberal economic policies, however, have led to a contradiction between labor-saving technology and labor itself — as technology makes work easier and faster, the demand for labor decreases and this pits workers against technological progress. To put it bluntly, it is in the economic interests of the owners of businesses, resources, and industrial machinery to automate as many jobs as possible and fire everybody because, well — profit.
But let’s see how existing technology might change the US workweek. The study shows that three kinds of activities have the highest “automatability” and these would be the fastest and easiest to implement — predictable physical work, data processing, and data collection. Altogether¹ they represent around 37.3% of all work-activities:
Predictable physical work: 870,471,081 hours
Data processing: 624,431,497 hours
Data collection: 615,381,765 hours
870,471,081 + 624,431,497 + 615,381,765 = 2,110,284,343 hours saved by automation
Now, let’s subtract the hours saved by automation from the mass workweek to get the new and improved workweek 2.0…
5,656,082,400 – 2,110,284,343 = 3,545,798,057
And now let’s split the automated workweek evenly over the able, working-age population…
3,545,798,057 ÷ 184,382,959 = 19.23061695197114 or about 19hrs, 15 minutes
The Automated Luxury Workweek:
The 4-Hour Workday Is Possible Now
Realistically, this would get a lot more complicated and it is important to note that this post has shamelessly glossed over tons of variables including but not limited to the rate of voluntary part-time work and joblessness, unpaid domestic labor, and frictional unemployment, among others. The point, however, is this: in principle, a 20-hour workweek is in the ballpark of possibility today if the current automation potential was implemented and if policies were crafted to raise the employment rate to its fullest potential. Whether that can happen is in the hands of the working classes — but it is possible today.
The 40-hour workweek was needed after the 19th-century industrial revolution’s scientific innovation and technological progress increased productivity — less work was needed, causing unemployment to rise, wages to fall, and work-hours to lengthen. But the thing is — the industrial revolution never stopped.
Increasingly Hellish Capitalist Inequity
or Fully-Automated Luxury Communism?
The main obstacle is that none of this is profitable and, in order for any of it to happen, the rules of the current economic game say workers would need to convince the capitalist class to pay higher wages to more people for working fewer hours ( and that won’t happen ). Automation, by itself, is profitable for the industrialists and financial elite but only at the cost of a rise in unemployment — unions know this, which is why they are locked in a losing fight against labor-saving technology.
Giving jobs to everyone also conflicts with the rules of market economics. Nothing stops the United States from simply creating jobs for the unemployed — but “unemployment” is a synonym for “a high supply of labor” and higher supply leads to lower prices in a market system. And the “price” of labor is called a wage. If the total available hours of labor were shared among everyone willing to work, it would be bad for employers who profit from the high supply of US labor — in other words, unemployment is good for them because profits rise as wages fall.
But in spite of the internal logic of markets and capitalism, the 20-hour workweek is already here within reach of working classes — and, if the 1% were going to relinquish it, they would have done so already. Like every inch of progress, it cannot be begged for — it can only be seized.
¹ Note: The values for the number of ‘automatable’ hours given for each work-activity were converted from McKinsey’s % values: ( t × w )a — where ‘t’ is McKinsey’s % of total work-activity represented by the specific activity (e.g. 19% of total work-activity is ‘predictable physical work’), ‘w’ is the ‘mass workweek’ calculated earlier, and ‘a’ is McKinsey’s % of the specific activity which is ‘automatable’ (e.g. 81% of ‘predictable physical work’ is ‘automatable’ w/ existing tech). All relevant numbers, aside from the ‘mass workweek,’ were accessed in December, 2017 at: https://public.tableau.com/profile/mckinsey.analytics#!/vizhome/AutomationBySector/WhereMachinesCanReplaceHumans