It is now obvious that the world of work is under enormous stress. There are too many perverse incentives in play—firms are penalized (financially) when they hire someone, workers are penalized when they become sick or cannot arrange child care, etc. Workers lose when firms close or embrace automation. We must re-imagine the world of work. I have already made the case that an income must be weaned off of the necessity for work. But work remains essential for our mental health, and for the creation and distribution of the goods and services we desire. We can do better.
Once we start to reimagine something, we realize just how arbitrary and artificial most things in life turn out to be. The status quo is, after all, merely the remnant of past ideas.
Why is a “weekend” just two days? Why not three? Why is the work day 8 hours? Why not 5 or 6? Indeed, why are there 52 weeks in a year? Why not 60? If there were 60 weeks, each week would have 6 days (Leap Year corrections still required). If the “weekend” remains sacred at two days, that would mean the work week becomes four days. There was a time when people worked 10-12 hours per day, six days per week. All of this arbitrary stuff is a mere “social construct.”
Let’s agree not to re-create the calendar—let’s just manipulate all of the artificial stuff within that calendar. The new world of work might look like this:
The work day is 6 hours The work week is 4 days
Work is reimagined as a “public good” Firms are reimagined as a “public trust.”
Work is a “public good” because a world without regular work is a dangerous world indeed. The Egyptians figured this out a long time ago. We think those pyramids and obelisks are grand monuments to momentary despotic rulers. Wrong, they were public works projects to keep folks out of trouble. Rulers enjoyed the attention—but they were practical folks and understood that millions of “idle hands” can be politically unstable. What better way to solve that danger than to put people to work. By the way, we did that during the Depression.
This means that society at large—the political community—has a strong interest in creating a meaningful way to accomplish several things at once: (1) keep people busy; (2) provision the nation with good and services; and (3) pay people for the work they do.
With work being a public good, we come to the incentive problems that now contaminate the world of work. Cutting the “work week” to a 6-4 model will create more opportunities for people to work. But the government will need to find new ways to incentivize work. It is time to reward firms—not penalize them—for hiring people. Many firms cannot find workers because of defective transportation systems. Many firms cannot find workers because of the absence of child-care facilities. Many firms cannot find workers because specialized skills have not been made available through technical schools. Each of these impediments to work can be rectified.
Indeed, the Scandinavian countries figured out how to do this decades ago. America is merely stubborn and racist. After all, many of these changes have been resisted because they would benefit a class of people too many Americans prefer to ignore.
Finally, firms must be re-imagined as a public trust. This means there is no such thing as a “private firm.” This is less dramatic than it might seem. Restaurants are licensed and inspected. Work conditions in firms have long been subject to oversight and enforcement (think the Occupational Health and Safety Administration).
If the government (as our agent in this political community) is going to make work more easily arranged for firms (by helping the labor market work better), those firms have some obligations in return.
- Adopt regular work schedules conforming with the new 6-4 model above. They can hire and staff accordingly. The government can facilitate this new model with incentives and tax breaks. More people will be eager to work, and they will more easily find work.
- Allow workers flexibility to participate in education and training programs. The new 6-4 model offers more time for such activities, yet work schedules must be flexible and adaptable to workers’ needs.
- Firms must adopt a pay regime that assures workers in each category a secure monthly income. There must be a salary schedule much as the federal government has for categories, time in grade, etc. No more focus on a minimum wage since work hours can easily be reduced—thereby harming total compensation. Workers need weekly (or monthly) income assurance, not arbitrary hourly rates. This extension of trust and commitment to workers would then be reciprocated by workers who gradually grow to trust and respect their employer. That would be real change.
Please do not ask about how much this would cost (and be paid for). I do not recall being asked how much entry into World War II was going to cost. Or the Korean War. I do not recall being asked how much our 18-year long engagement in Afghanistan was going to cost. Or the disastrous invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.
Wars elsewhere are easy to justify. Wars at home are not. But they are no less important. In fact, the wars at home are most essential.
Dr. Daniel Bromley can be contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.