If the Robots Actually Were to Come … We Could Enjoy Shorter Work Time

Stephen Herzenberg |

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently with people saying, “the robots are coming” with fear that they are going to take so many jobs that many people, especially in more vulnerable demographic groups, will end up jobless.

We and our friends in the community of progressive economic think tanks, the Economic Analysis Research Network (EARN), find this technological determinism misguided. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, points out that with equitable distribution of the economic benefits, more robots will mean less work for people—otherwise known as productivity growth. This productivity growth could pay for higher living standards, a shorter workweek or some of both.

What brings this to mind are recent stories in The Atlantic and Fortune on the move by many Swedish businesses to a six-hour workday. These businesses are beginning to choose a future of high productivity growth and shorter work time. Sounds good to us.

A couple of weeks ago, Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, blogged on the Swedish workday shift. A year ago, in research for EARN, Baker ran the numbers on the kind of future we could have with different assumptions about income distribution and the rate of productivity growth. Baker’s calculations (see chart below) show that, even with today’s skewed income distribution, 2 percent productivity growth in 30 years would yield an increase in hourly compensation of 81 percent. This is sufficient to support a 50 percent increase in living standards combined with a one-sixth reduction in annual work hours—e.g., eight weeks more vacation for someone who works 40 hours per week, 48 weeks a year.

With 2 percent productivity growth and a return to the more equal income distribution of the late 1970s, Americans could enjoy a 50% increase in living standards, a six-hour workday—compatible with caring for school-age children—plus nearly 10 weeks of additional vacation. With more robots—i.e., even higher productivity growth—AND a decent income distribution, the future becomes even more attractive.

The infographic below shows our representative 90-percenter thinking about the additional income she could enjoy and also about the vacation time with children, lifelong education, care-taking for an elderly parent, and freedom from debt that might result.

This infographic brings to mind Samuel Gompers’s famous 1893 quote about what labor wants, delivered not long before manufacturing technology generated a leap forward in productivity: ““We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures…and [make] childhood more happy and bright.”

In other words, technological liberation from more work should be something to celebrate, allowing an easy political dialogue about how to split the bounty.

Sweden is already starting down this road of higher-productivity growth and shorter work time.

When will WE get started here in Pennsylvania and the rest of the United States?