Will Americans ever embrace the 30-hour workweek?

How our cruddy welfare state makes Americans work more than everyone else

One tidbit of news that flew under the radar recently is that employers in Sweden are experimenting with a 30-hour workweek. It's far from a universal practice. But it's also the bleeding edge of a trend that's been prevalent in the Western world for a while now. Since 1950, Sweden, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and all four Nordic countries have cut the time their average person spends working by at least 20 percent.

The United States is an outlier here. We've only cut our hours 5 percent since 1950, and now work considerably more than just about any other advanced country.

And since we're debating whether the U.S. should be more like Denmark and the other Nordics, it's worth pointing out something else: that America's failure to cut its work hours is deeply interwoven with its failure to reduce its inequality.

The Western world has slowly been ratcheting down the time we spend at work for a while now. (Keep in mind that by "work," I mean "labor for a wage," not just any activity.) And this makes sense. One thing market economies are pretty good at is increasing their productivity over time — i.e. getting the same amount of wealth creation for less effort. A society can take that new productivity as additional income and work the same, or it can work less and take more time doing something other than earning a wage. And most human beings do in fact have lots of other worthwhile stuff to do.

But while this ratcheting down of the time we spend on the job is allowed for in the logic of markets and productivity, it doesn't happen naturally. It's a social choice, one that has to be made proactively by a country and its government.

For instance, if everyone works fewer hours but makes the same income, that means wages earned per hour have to rise. To get that, we'd have to be running the economy as hot as possible, keeping ourselves at full employment, over long periods of time. This requires continuous active management of fiscal policy and monetary policy, and it's hard to pull off even when everyone's on board with it. But companies and business owners obviously don't like paying higher wages per hour, because that cuts into profits and shareholder payouts. Furthermore, elites tend to not like the way full employment redistributes social and economic power, and deploy their considerable political clout to prevent it.

The other option is to just have the government distribute incomes directly. Even when people aren't working for pay — when they're raising their kids, volunteering at their church, or just grilling out back with friends — they need money to pay the bills. So most other countries bypass market incomes with large welfare states, and with things like paid vacation time and family leave. America, much less so. The same people who dislike high wages and full employment also dislike big welfare states. That's partially because they dislike higher taxes, but also because government aid makes workers less desperate for income, and thus increases their social and economic power.

In short, offering people more time away from paid work intrinsically requires reducing inequality. It's no accident the Nordics and other countries have much more egalitarian distributions of income than America. They've done this through a mishmash of full employment, high unionization, and large welfare states. Moreover, the collective social choice to make time away from work more widely available inevitably requires a fight. It pits everyday workers against the people who have an interest in getting as much work out of workers as possible for as little cost as possible.

Another twist is that the distribution of time at work is bizarrely off-kilter in America. People in the upper class actually work more hours than people in the lower class. At this point it should be clear why: Maintaining a large "reserve army" of unemployed Americans is necessary to keep worker power and wages down. If there's always someone even more desperate waiting to take their job, workers aren't going to bargain for anything better. The excess "leisure time" of many low-education and low-income Americans is actually leisure time that's been forced on them by poor job creation.

As for the upper class, one thing you tend to get with inequality is rapid inflation in certain necessities of life — particularly health care, housing, and education. If some small portion of the population has crazy-high purchasing power, that drives up the cost of the stuff they purchase. As a result, the lower class often gets entirely priced out of decent housing and decent health care, or living in areas with good jobs. The upper class doesn't quite get priced out, but they have to keep increasing their incomes just to tread water. And without full employment or a generous welfare state, the only way to do that is to work more hours.

This all leads into the final gag, which is that the same countries with more egalitarianism and fewer work hours are also more economically productive and do a better job keeping their citizens employed.

Take Denmark and the Nordic countries again: They produce almost as much or more economic growth per person as the U.S. does, and they all produce more per hour worked. Their economies are more productive despite — or rather, because — they take it easier on their workers. "The eight-hour work day is not as effective as one would think," the CEO of an app developer in Stockholm told Fast Company. "To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge."

As for attachment to the labor force, the portion of the Nordics' population age 25 to 54 that's employed is 4 to 7 percentage points higher, and has been for over a decade. (Same goes for other advanced countries.) In other words, distributing incomes more evenly, and distributing time away from work more evenly, is all the flip side of distributing access to work more evenly. Individuals work less, but more individuals work overall.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing over how having work and being involved in the labor market is crucial to human happiness and well-being. If that's your thing, then it's the Nordics, not the United States, that are delivering the kind of society you want.


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