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40 hour work weeks: too much, or not enough?

If you noodle around liberal web sites a bit, you’ll come across a talking point designed to cushion the blow of ObamaCare job losses: a lot of those cuts, such as the 2.5 million “job equivalent” losses predicted by the CBO in their bombshell forecast, are more about reduced hours than outright termination.  The old-and-busted O-bot talking point was that business owners would never cut hours to get under the 30-hour threshold needed to escape the worst Affordable Care Act mandates, and any executive who explicitly stated he was carrying out such plans was a lying Republican hack.  Presumably the hundreds of thousands of employees who said their hours were indeed trimmed to 29 or less were also lying Republican hacks.  

But that talking point is dead now, especially since the government is one of the employers that has explicitly stated hours are getting shaved to evade the mandates.  So the new brainstorm bubbling up from the fever swamps of the Left is that working less is a good thing.  If you can get by on working 29 hours, with subsidies looted from other taxpayers to support your food, housing, and medical needs, what’s the problem?  That’s paradise, right?  We should celebrate the dawn of a new age in which everyone gets to be a “child” until they turn 27, then work 25 hours a week, have their EBT card automatically refilled with digital food stamps every month, and have their health needs covered by heavily subsidized ObamaCare policies!

A persistent strain of leftist through, stretching back to the rougher patches of the Industrial Revolution, holds that reducing the length of the work week is the paramount sign of social progress.  This was an easy enough case to make when the “work week” was 80 hours long, you had trouble breathing for 20 of them, and some of your co-workers were ten years old.  But the echoes of industrial horror that revolted the likes of Karl Marx still run strong in socialist thought, as though we’re one false move away from the return of sweatshops and brutal exploitation of captive workers.  Even those with no particular ideology might still think working ten hours less per week sounds good, and maybe a society in which most people only worked 30 hours would be a worthwhile achievement.  What’s so magical about 40 hours as the definition of full-time employment, anyway?  Who came up with 40?

Clearly a lot of this is desperate ideological reverse-engineering to defend Obama’s high-unemployment, low-growth record, and some of the people making this case were howling in outrage over George Bush’s far better job numbers only a few years ago.  But the question about 40 hours is not unfair to ask, since technology has liberated us from the need to rise and dawn and labor until dusk.  The thing is, I don’t think 40 hours is enough.  I haven’t averaged 40 hours a week of work in the last 25 years.  I’ve never known a successful person who only worked eight hours a day.  It’s not a magical number, exactly, but it does seem to work pretty well as a guideline for the minimal expectation of productivity from people who work full-time.

Surely there will always be people who only desire part-time work, and a vibrant economy will make plenty of room for them.  But as a social and cultural inclination, I think it’s very dangerous to encourage the idea that working less is a symbol of prosperity (a la the running gag on the old “Jetsons” cartoon, in which ten-hour work weeks were considered brutal in a far future filled with robot servants) or portray reduced hours as a gift from the State, financed by some witches’ brew of deficit spending and taxes levied against the more productive.  

Maybe cheap robot butlers will change this someday, but for right now, human effort remains a fantastically valuable resource, and we are well-advised to craft a culture that regards it as such, rather than encouraging a culture in which work is an unfair burden the State can free us from.  (JOB LOCK!  JOB LOCK!)  In every way – from the search for employment, to the desire for more hours, to the ambition of earning higher rewards through excellence – we should be encouraging everyone to work more, not less.  It’s good for the national soul, and vital for the general prosperity.

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