A third option in the UBI/Job Guarantee debate- shortening the working week.

Both a Job Guarantee and UBI have been proposed as solutions to the perceived threat of a decline in demand for labour following increasing automation.

We’ll take it as a given that the threat is real. While automation in the past has not reduced employment, we never faced the creation of machines progressively able to do almost anything a human can do. Even if automation through increasingly intelligent processes doesn’t eventually drive down employment, it seems likely that it will make the remaining jobs increasingly marginal- (e.g., employing humans rather than machines as a status symbol) and hence leave the working class with less bargaining power and money, and worse conditions. However, both a job guarantee and a UBI are imperfect solutions to this problem.

Against UBI it has been argued that the UBI has the potential to create a permanent underclass with no economic power, and only limited political agency. If a jobs apocalypse does happen, UBI makes it politically feasible to simply let large swathes of the working class permanently exit the job market, leaving them with little power over society, beyond the tenuous power provided by voting.

Against a Job guarantee it has been argued that any such guarantee will consist in pointless, unfulfilling make work and the whole concept depends on a puritanical exaltation of work for work’s sake. Either the work done through a job guarantee wouldn’t be worth doing without that labour, in which case it will be fairly meaningless, or it would be worth doing even without job guarantee labour, in which case the job guarantee program will just shrink the rest of the job market.

I believe there is a third option to deal with the looming threat of a jobs apocalypse. It does not take labour to be a good in itself, to be encouraged even if it is useless, but it also doesn’t create a relatively powerless class of people with no access to work. instead it heightens the power of workers and spreads the work around as much as possible.

The option I’m talking about is progressively reducing the length of the working week at such a rate to ensure the labour market is always tight enough for it to be reasonably easy to get a high quality job. Working week reduction (or WWR for short) is obviously not a new initiative, but rarely is it contrasted with UBI and a Job Guarantee as a solution to the same problems. Automation may shrink the number of hours of work that need to be done, but if the number of hours each worker provides is also falling, there doesn’t need to be a reduction in the employment rate. By keeping labour artificially scarce, we ensure its power.

Through Working Week Reduction (WWR) we increase employment, raise wages and ensure that the working class continues to hold political power, and isn’t swamped by an increasingly vast reserve army of labour. We also crack down on ‘bullshit jobs’, as scarcity will force the prioritisation of jobs that are actually necessary.

The process is simple, and already exists to some degree in most jurisdictions. Start by phasing in a 33 or 35 hour working week. There’s no need to make the cap a hard cap. To keep flexibility where necessary we can average it over some period (a month or a fortnight) and rather than ban employers from going over this limit altogether, simply impose a generous overtime pay requirement that ensures that no employer would choose to retain a single worker permanently for such hours- rather than hiring extra workers.

The biggest problem with WWR is that it is temporary- it only works so long as there is at least some considerable supply of labour that needs doing and can only be done by humans. However it is my hope that by maintaining workers political and economic power for as long as possible during the process of full automation, it makes the transition to a post work economy as friendly to the popular classes as possible.

A lot of people are going to read this and say porque no los dos? Why not some mix of two of the ideas, or even all three ideas? I’m not against exploring the idea of combining this proposal with a basic income proposal. Especially as the automation process comes to an end, something like UBI will surely be necessary (hopefully, from my point of view, combined with the abolition of private ownership of capital, since it will surely have no use in an economy primarily run by artificial intelligence). Introducing UBI now, even while we are still some distance from full automation, doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I’m not even 100% against the idea of combining WWR with a job guarantee although I am extremely sceptical.

Nonetheless I think that although all three ideas attempt to solve the one problem, a shorter working week must be the priority. If WWR reduction isn’t make a priority, the UBI and Job Guarantee proposals will create an underclass. For example, UBI not supplemented by WWR shrinks the working class, and divides the popular classes into those with jobs and those without. Even if UBI doesn’t actually reduce the labour supply (which, admittedly, some early experiments suggest it doesn’t), it does nothing directly to address the job shrinkage driven by the automation apocalypse, and it makes doing nothing about this a politically viable choice. The large reserve army of labour will thereby drive down the negotiating power of the remaining workers.

What about highly skilled professions which require specialised and credentialed employees and are unlikely to be automated? What about caring professions that can’t be automated, or will be automated later than other tasks? Wouldn’t this policy harm such industries- to the determent of all insofar as we value having social workers, doctors, nurses, scientists, teachers and so on? To a certain extent the solution can probably be found in training more such professionals, which WWR incentivizes. If this policy does reduce the rate of bullshit jobs, it might be a salubrious opportunity to support professionals in these jobs to retrain. In the worst case though- if retraining can’t meet demand- we can set a higher working hours cap for scarce types of worker.

Finally, a word about Exciting Social Visions and Big Ideas. There’s something exciting about the idea of UBI and of a Job Guarantee, compared to that, the vision of adjusting labour regulations that already exist in many countries might look dull. Further reducing the working week just may not seem that sexy in comparison- far fewer Ted talks on that sort of thing. However, I think it’s very exciting. I’ve worked full time, and I’ve worked 30 hours a week, and I can tell you the lifestyle of a shorter working week is very different, and the impact is outsized in comparison what you would expect. On paper, eight hours is only half your waking day, in practice it takes away a much bigger percentage than that.

Working for 6 hours, for example, feels like a part of your day- a pretty hefty part, to be sure, but far from the whole of it. Working for eight hours on the other hand sort of eclipses everything else. After you factor in life-admin If you’re lucky you’ve got maybe one social engagement, a trip to the gym or a bit of serious reading, left in you after that, and then you’re buggered and all rest is taken up by pure vegetative recuperation. Even small steps to reduce working hours will have outsized effects on how much living you can get done, because it’s not just the time you win back, it’s the energy you would have had to expend on work in that hour or two.

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