Approaches to the Reduction of Aggregate Labor Time

Technology has reached the point where nobody should be compelled to spend most of their waking hours working in dangerous, menial or otherwise unpleasant jobs (‘bad jobs’, for short). It is increasingly possible to mechanize most menial and repetitive tasks. But of the bad jobs that continue for a time, there remains the question of how best to share the burden they impose. Even with better jobs, there is the potential to reduce standard working hours and create more free time for those who want it. Here, too, there is the question of how to manage such an overall reduction in working hours. Since some people will desire to maintain or increase their current working hours, ideally there should be latitude for them to do so, just as there should be latitude for others, so inclined, to shorten their labor-time commitment. In this post, three alternative approaches to the problem are briefly considered. They can be labeled ‘universal job sharing’, ‘optional job sharing’ and ‘job or income guarantee’.

1. Universal Job Sharing

One approach would be to require every able-bodied person of working age to share in some of the undesirable employment but also be assured of access to more desirable roles the rest of the time. For example, proponents of ‘participatory economics‘ take this position. They suggest each worker perform a combination of roles that, on average, matches some estimate of the average desirability of all jobs.

This approach has some attractive features in terms of social justice and accountability:

  • If society deems it tolerable that some individuals are compelled to engage in unpleasant work, the same should apply to all able-bodied individuals of working age. By requiring a doctor, a lawyer, a stock broker or an academic economist to spend some of their time in a back-breaking, dangerous or otherwise unpleasant role, these workers would come face to face with how they are expecting others to spend their lives and also help to reduce the burden on individuals currently in those positions. The political will to eradicate such roles through mechanization would likely increase.
  • The opportunity to undertake rewarding roles would be more widely distributed. This would give everybody the chance to develop their capacities in a multi-sided fashion.

There is likely to be a downside in terms of productivity. Medical specialists spending some of their time in another role would probably not be making the best use of their time unless they themselves desired to do this. The productivity loss associated with unwillingly seconded academic economists might not be so evident …

Although the level of unpleasant employment could be reduced as part of an overall reduction in working hours, compulsory job sharing would have an element of spreading the misery. For this reason, its implementation would involve coercion. This, however, needs to be weighed against the economic compulsion already applying to most workers in bad jobs.

2. Optional Job Sharing

This is an approach I suggested in an earlier post, Proposal for an Interim Society Prior to Utopia. Basically, the idea is that those who enjoy their current jobs and working hours could keep them. Those who dislike their jobs could indicate the fact or nominate an amount of hours they wished to retain. The total amount of unwanted employment could then be spread among the remaining available workers. Since the undesired labor time would be shared among more workers, the average work week applying to bad jobs would be shortened relative to better jobs.

Optional job sharing obviously lacks some of the fairness and accountability of universal job sharing. Many workers would remain personally unscathed by the continued existence of bad jobs. The approach would also fail to equalize access to fulfilling roles.

On the plus side, optional job sharing would probably have less impact on productivity and avoid unwanted disruption to current work activities. Anyone in a job who opted to stick with it would see little change in personal circumstances. Those who did face some disruption would either be employed workers opting for it in preference to their present circumstances or unemployed workers standing to receive a boost in income.

Job sharing, whether universal or optional, would really start to make inroads into the amount of undesired labor time if socially wasteful and/or harmful employment was discontinued. There is much activity that, while adding to GDP, has no benefit in terms of real living standards, and in some cases comes at enormous social or environmental cost. Mostly these activities are concerned with extracting economic rents or preserving the current unfair system in the face of opposition. Much of finance and banking, real estate, private insurance, the military and secret service, advertising and marketing, copyright law, as well as middleman corporations not needed in the age of the internet, such as publishing houses and record labels, could end without impacting at all on the availability of the necessities and luxury items of life. Food, clothing, shelter, entertainment and so on could all be supplied in the same amount even though these workers were relieved of their current duties.

By eradicating as much of the socially useless activity as possible, the amount of unwanted labor time to be shared could be dramatically reduced. The work week in the case of bad jobs could be drastically shortened, freeing up time for other productive and leisure activities. Moreover, since the real standard of living would be maintained, despite the shorter working hours, total pay would not necessarily be reduced in real terms. It would no longer be necessary for consumers to pay for dubious financial, insurance or real estate services, prices inflated by advertising and marketing costs, and so on, which really add nothing to our real living standards.

3. Job or Income Guarantee

A ‘job or income guarantee’ (JIG) would enable a reduction in total labor time with little disruption to those who enjoyed their current jobs and require no coercion to implement. A job guarantee could of course be introduced without a basic income, and vice versa, but here I will stick to considering the JIG, which includes both, at least in some form.

The JIG is the easiest way to ensure that:

  • Nobody is forced to take a job against his or her will.
  • Everybody who wants a job is assured of one.

A JIG in its pure form would include a universal basic income. Every citizen, at least of working age, would get it whether employed or unemployed, and whether in the workforce or not. The pure form would be best, because it minimizes administrative and monitoring costs and removes the stigmatization that comes with targeted transfers. The only time individuals would need to turn up to the job-guarantee provider would be if they desired a job-guarantee position.

The JIG, as considered here, could be of the pure form (universal income payment plus job guarantee) or of a more limited form. In the limited form, anyone of working age without a job, whether currently in the labor force or not, could present themselves to the job-guarantee provider and indicate either that they want a job-guarantee position or a means-tested but otherwise unconditional income payment (or perhaps some combination of part-time job-guarantee work and a partial income payment). The outlay on the basic income as a percentage of GDP would be much reduced in comparison to a pure basic income and so require lower marginal tax rates, which might make it a bit more politically feasible in some nations, notably the conservative English speaking ones. Commonly voiced objections concerning reciprocity would still remain.

A JIG in either form would have a number of attractive features:

  • The availability of the basic-income component would immediately enable some reduction in total labor time. Anyone who preferred free time to pursue their own voluntary productive activities individually or in combination with others would be empowered to do so.
  • The design of the job-guarantee component of the JIG also provides an opportunity to alter the nature of work over time, especially if individual workers are given considerable input into design of their roles. This would feed back on the nature of employment in the broader economy.
  • A JIG would exert pressure on pay levels in bad jobs. If nobody was willing to take a bad job, the pay level would have to increase, somewhat compensating workers who agreed to undertake the role. The necessity to pay more would also increase the likelihood of the job being mechanized, which would be a good thing in the case of bad jobs.

On the last of these observations, if a productive process became unprofitable as a result of the higher pay or cost of mechanization, it would either be closed down or, if it was meeting a social need, be publicly provided. A currency-issuing government has the capacity to pay higher wages or the costs of expensive mechanization, whichever is cheaper, in the case of necessities that cannot be provided profitably by the private sector. If price stability demanded higher taxes, so be it. In the case of higher pay for bad jobs, that would be the price the rest of us pay for expecting some individuals to undertake unpleasant or dangerous roles that we do not want to perform ourselves. In the case of expensive mechanization, it would be the price we pay to eradicate the unpleasant work.


Each approach has its merits and drawbacks. Compulsory job sharing is perhaps the fairest but has some cost in terms of productivity and would be quite coercive in implementation, given the starting point. Optional job sharing would be somewhat easier to implement but would not ensure the same level of fairness. A JIG minimizes coercion but faces objections from those who maintain that reciprocity is breached. Personally, I don’t think the reciprocity argument holds water, especially under capitalist conditions (see here, here and here), but there is no doubt that opinions differ widely on the issue.

4 thoughts on “Approaches to the Reduction of Aggregate Labor Time

  1. “Personally, I don’t think the reciprocity argument holds water”

    It’s not a matter of argument. It’s a matter of perception and resentment.

    Your peers need to see you doing ‘something useful’ or they will agitate to remove the system that allows you to do what you are doing.

    How much they do that depends upon the social maturity of the society you live in – and likely very basic human psychology. We will only share with others that we perceive as ‘pulling on the same rope’

    While arguments succeed that allow universal income payments to be removed from those perceived as ‘rich’, you’ll never get anywhere with anything that allows those that are ‘poor’ to do what they please.

    Libertarianism has a social limit.

  2. It’s not a matter of argument. It’s a matter of perception and resentment.

    Agree that there’s an uphill battle with perception, but the only way I can think of to help change that is by presenting an argument. 🙂

  3. “but the only way I can think of to help change that is by presenting an argument.”

    We have a saying in IT – bubbles and arrows don’t run on computers.

    The only way to deliver change is to put a small change iteration in place and see if it works. Rinse and repeat.

    It’s important to glance at the horizon to make sure you’re going in the right direction, but you still have to plant the seeds at your feet.

  4. Sorry for bumping this up, but what about: None of the above?

    These approaches can be supported on the left for reasons other than the reduction of aggregate labour time. I’ve just read key parts or Robert LaJeunesse’s Work Time Regulation, and this book reminds me of one Tom Walker’s works on working hours. That’s what’s inspiring this post.

    I’ll start with an unusual critique of JIG and ELR by itself, unusual coming from a usual supporter. These facilitate the commodification of work previously outside the labour market, like household work and eldercare, so by definition aggregate labour time is increased!

    The two job sharing policies, meanwhile, may have quite a radical impact. However, such impact is only at first. It doesn’t have the protracted but more systemic impact that, say, the more successful anti-smoking campaigns and regulations have had – essentially limiting smoking to individual residences. This same problem is shared by the most optimistic and sympathetic interpretation of the Trotskyist sacred cow known as the “sliding scale of hours” (i.e., assuming no upward adjustments to working hours).

    A few years ago I wrote about behavioural political economy and economy-wide indicative planning, but I made only one scant comment about working hours. After this re-acquaintance with working hours, I think there’s a better approach, one that may not look as radical at first, but one that is more protracted and systemic.

    We all know about stagnant or depressed real wages, if not about stagnant or depressed real disposable income, over the past three-and-a-half decades or so. However, based on the references cited above, I think there may be one justifiable anchor for the policy-based maintenance of stagnant (not depressed) real discretionary income: slow but long-term decline in working hours.

    Each increment of such decline could be made on an annual basis and tied for the most part to inflation, some cost of living measure, or some productivity measure. Unlike a sliding scale, however, there would be no upward adjustments to working hours. Some math is necessary below to show the slow but long-term decline in working hours under such actually radical policy.

    Assuming end-of-period calculations, a 1% annual decline in working hours, and a base value of 40 hours:
    Year 1 working hours = 39.6000
    Year 5 working hours = 38.0396
    Year 10 working hours = 36.1753
    Year 20 working hours = 32.7163
    Year 30 working hours = 29.5880
    Year 50 working hours = 24.2002

    Assuming end-of-period calculations, a 2% annual decline in working hours, and a base value of 40 hours:
    Year 1 working hours = 39.2000
    Year 5 working hours = 36.1568
    Year 10 working hours = 32.6829
    Year 20 working hours = 26.7043
    Year 30 working hours = 21.8194
    Year 50 working hours = 14.5668

    Now that is work time / working hours regulation!

    Note: Just think of further declines if immediate pressure for a 32-hour workweek (without loss of pay or benefits) were to erupt and succeed.

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