Reprinted from The Guardian
Former governor Jeb Bush's announcement this week that he thinks people should work more hours puts him in direct opposition to the two leading contenders on the Democratic side -- both of whom are pushing proposals that will allow people to work less. This could mean that 2016 will be an election in which work hours play a central role.
Bush's comment came during a speech in which he listed the things that Americans need to do to reach his target of 4.0% annual GDP growth "as far as the eye can see": increase labor force participation, work longer hours, and increase productivity. (It was not the first time that Bush said that he thought people should work more -- he previously argued for raising the normal retirement age for Social Security.)
The sight of someone who was raised in privilege and relied on family connections to make his careers in business and politics telling the rest of the American public that they have to work more will make good fodder for Bush's political opponents. But this position is actually held by many people in policy circles in both political parties.
This view is striking given that the United States -- and most of the rest of the world -- has been suffering from the opposite problem for the last eight years: we don't have enough jobs for the people who want them. The United States, Europe, and Japan all have fewer people working than would like to work because there is insufficient demand in the economy. Obviously we can't both have a shortage of workers and a shortage of jobs at the same time.
One of the theories that is getting widely (and wrongly) repeated is that none of us will have work because robots are taking all the jobs. But, while the robots taking all our jobs story is an exaggeration, the basic point is right: we are seeing rising productivity, which means that we can produce more goods and services with the same amount of labor. Productivity, including that spurred by technological innovation, is the basis for rising living standards.
Historically, the benefits from higher productivity are higher pay and more leisure -- if we go back a century, for instance, work weeks of 60 or even 70 hours a week were common. But while the American work week has been largely fixed at 40 hours a week for the last 70 years, other countries have pursued policies to shorten the work week and/or work year through paid sick days, paid family leave, and paid vacation.
Several European countries have actively pushed policies of work sharing as an alternative to unemployment: the government compensates workers, in part, for a reduction in hours rather than paying unemployment insurance to someone who has lost their job. Germany has led the way in pushing work sharing policies, which is an important factor in its 4.7% unemployment rate. And, as a result of work sharing and other policies, the average worker in Germany puts in almost 25% fewer hours each year than workers in the United States, according to the OECD. Most other wealthy countries are similar to Germany: in the Netherlands, the average work year is 21% shorter than in the US and, in Denmark, it is 20% shorter.
The leading Democratic contenders are proposing policies to bring the US more in line with the rest of the world's work weeks. Secretary Clinton indicated that she will support paid family leave and paid sick days, although she has not yet produced specific proposals. Senator Bernie Sanders, the other leading contender, also supports paid family leave and paid sick days, and he recently offered a proposal that would guarantee all workers two weeks per year of paid vacation. That might seem like small change compared to the five to six weeks a year that is now standard in Europe, but it would be a huge gain for tens of millions of workers.
There is a long way yet before the parties select their nominees, but if the general election ends up being a contest between Jeb Bush and either Clinton or Sanders, it will present the country's workers with an unusually clear choice. We will have one candidate who wants to ensure that people can work less but keep the same standard of living, and another who wants people to work more hours and retire later for the good of the country's economy -- and the latter candidate is the one who doesn't identify as a socialist.