Right-wing ideologues say that the labor force participation rate is down because abundant welfare makes it possible for people not to work. But this is nonsensical. During this period, food stamps have twice been reduced, and unemployment benefits were cut back, as were a variety of social services. Being on welfare in America today has therefore become an extreme hardship, not chosen by anyone. Meanwhile, there are no good jobs going begging; all of them have growing numbers of applicants, allowing employers to be just as arbitrarily picky as they wish.
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Finally, Nathan Schneider ties all this together with an amazing, wide-ranging, and very scholarly article, an edited and abridged version of which follows here:
At one point in our history, the US labor movement could fill the streets with hundreds of thousands of workers demanding a shorter (eight-hour) workday. This was thought of as just one more step in the gradual reduction of working hours that was expected to continue indefinitely.
Before the Civil War, workers like the factory women of Lowell, Massachusetts, had fought for a reduction to ten hours from 12 or more. Later, when the Great Depression hit, unions called for shorter hours to spread out the reduced workload and prevent layoffs; big companies like Kellogg's followed suit voluntarily. But in the wake of World War II, the eight-hour grind stuck, and today most workers, in fear of losing their job to some very qualified person willing to work hard for less, end up putting in even more hours than that.
And so it is that the US now leads the pack in annual working hours
US workers put in as many as 300 more hours a year than their counterparts in Western Europe, largely thanks to the lack of paid leave. (Germans work far less than we do, even as they force the Greeks work far more.) Average worker productivity in the US has doubled a couple of times since 1950, yet worker income has stagnated -- allowing the rich to increase their incomes by great multiples. The value from that extra productivity, after all, has to go somewhere, especially so as the median wage continues to fall.
At one time in US history, it was common sense that advances in technology would bring more leisure time. "If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful," Benjamin Franklin wrote, "that labor would be sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life."