Transcript Juliet Schor: Why do we work so hard

00:00 Is capitalism delivering the good life? It depends on what time period you’re talking about.

00:07 Sometimes capitalism leads people to have to work more and more and they lose control of their time. With the development of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century you start to get increases in hours of work. And for about a century you have steady increases in the amount of time that people are working. The working day gets a bit longer and you may remember those really long hours that you read about in the Industrial Revolution, particularly women and children working 16-hour days, 18-hour days, literally getting worked to death.

00:40 And the number of days per year that people work, holidays were declining dramatically in places like the UK and the United States. From 1870 to 1970 hours of work decreased across all of the early industrializing countries and since 1970 there’s been a divergence.

01:08 In continental Europe and Japan people have continued to work less and less. In the United States and the UK that pattern has changed–by some data we’re working the same amount and according to other data we’re actually working more.

01:26 I think to understand why work time is rising in the United States and the UK, you need to look at the balance of power between employers and employees. And when employers get more powerful, when there’s more unemployment, when it’s harder for people to get jobs, they tend to also push people to work longer hours. But in general, employers like it when workers work long hours and when workers have been able to resist that pressure it’s because they’ve been more powerful in the labour market or they’ve joined together in unions to press for shorter work hours.

02:03 So, as these employers have gotten more powerful it has become obvious that workers don’t actually have choice of hours. The conventional theory says that there’s a market in hours and workers choose their hours and employers respond to that but there’s quite a bit of research, including my own, which suggests that it’s actually employers who set hours.

02:25 Workers choose their jobs. When they take a job there are hours that tend to go with it and the amount of flexibility that people have within their jobs is not all that great.

02:35 When we have technological advance, what do we use it for? Does the country use it to produce more stuff, or cars, more iPhones, more vacations, or do we use it to give people more free time? Produce the same amount of stuff, have people work less. That’s a really important question, particularly for wealthy societies where basic needs have been met.

03:00 The takeaways for students would be number one; what does a society do with its productivity dividend? Does it use it to produce more stuff, put more of an ecological impact on the earth, increase its carbon footprint? Does it use productivity growth to give people more free time and more control over their time? And how is that distribution decided? Is it workers, employees, who choose the amount of hours that they want as the conventional view says? Do employers set hours? In which case, one of the things we know, is that they will tend to prefer higher rates of production and economic growth.

03:43 If we use that technological advance to produce more we are going to continue to put really heavy and unsustainable pressure on the environment, particularly with carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases. In my research I find that countries who have longer hours of work have much higher carbon footprints and that the countries that have succeeded in using some of that technological improvement to reduce their hours of work have actually been able to reduce their carbon footprints along with it.