A 25 HOUR WEEK WOULD BE ENOUGH
By Philipp Lopfe
Prestigious businesses urge their workers to work less. That is a good example. The economic crisis forces us to seek new ways on the labor market.
[This article published in the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger, 6/24/2009 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.tagesanzeiger.de.]
In Great Britain, businesses like the airliner British Airways, the trust company KPMG and the "Financial Times" newspaper take the offensive and urge their workers to work less or take a half-year time out. Extending short-time work is a central social-political theme in Germany and Switzerland. The financial crisis has become a crisis of the real economy. Now staff cuts are announced almost daily. For example, the Sulzer high tech firm will cancel 1400 jobs.
For the future, the trend looks anything but rosy. For Switzerland, an unemployment rate of over five percent is expected. In other European countries like Spain, the ten percent threshold has already been crossed. Improvement is not expected. "The consequences of the shock will continue for a long time," says Anton Brender, chief economist of Deixa Asset Management in "Tages-Anzeiger." "Unemployment will remain high in the medium term, even under the optimistic assumption that the US economy grows 4 percent."
The crisis is putting our traditional model of work in question. This model assumes a normal employed person labors 40 hours plus or minus and that full employment prevails on the labor market. This model obviously hits its limits. The increasing productivity of the economy is responsible. In modern states, the quantity of goods and services has more than doubled since the 1970s. This trend continues. In Switzerland, the increased productivity is still on average 1.5 percent per year.
On principle rising productivity is full of blessings. Rising productivity made possible successively reducing working hours since the Second World War. However the reduction of working hours has come to a standstill and in part has even been cancelled. While the economy has become more productive, this cannot continue forever. Some time or other, it will be obvious that full employment and productivity growth cannot be reconciled any longer with unchanging working hours.
25 CHAIRS FOR 40 PARTICIPANTS
The limits of full employment were clear even before the outbreak of the crisis. In the book "Arbeitswut," Werner Vontobel and the writer figured out that a 25-hour week in Switzerland would be enough to produce all the goods and services we now produce if work were distributed fairly to all working persons. If this does not happen, the labor market will become a chair-dance as in the well-known game. When there are 40 participants and only 25 chairs, 15 actors will drop out when the music stops playing. In crisis, the music stops playing. The chair-dance is in full swing. Poorly trained employees are not the only afflicted ones. Now it seems we have too many doctors, lawyers, pilots and journalists.
Again and again the economic crisis is described as a chance for a "New Green Deal," an ecological reorganization of society. Analogously this crisis could also be a chance to reform our traditional working hours model. A development beneficial in itself like rising productivity decays to a degrading chair-dance for jobs.