Public Comment

Commentary: Work Time and Global Warming

By Charles Siegel
Tuesday May 08, 2007

As part of the Measure G process, Berkeley should consider policies to give employees the option of down-shifting economically by working less. Though it is not much talked about, choice of work hours is one key to dealing with global warming. 

Today, the economy must grow in tandem with increased productivity, regardless of how much people actually want to consume. Because of improved technology, the average American worker produces about 2.3 percent more in an hour each year— which means that a worker produced eight times as much each hour in 2000 as in 1900. As long as work time remains constant, total output per worker grows by 2.3 percent a year, doubling every 33 years. 

Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through conservation and cleaner fuels are likely to be overwhelmed by this constant increase in output. To stabilize world climate, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically during this century, and there is little or no chance of doing this if per capita output grows eight-fold during this century. An alternative to this hyper-growth economy is to give people the option of reducing their work hours. This opens the possibility of using increased productivity to work fewer hours, rather than to produce and consume more. Yet most Americans today have no choice of work hours. Almost all good jobs are full time, while most part-time jobs have low pay and no benefits. The economist Juliet Schor found that, if the average American male worker reduced his hours by 20 percent, he would reduce his earnings by 50 percent, because part-time workers have lower wages and fewer benefits. (The average female worker would reduce her earnings by a bit less, because women are more likely to have worked part-time during part of their lives, and so they are already discriminated against.) To give people the opportunity to choose to work shorter hours, we need to: 

• End discrimination against part-time workers. By law, part-time workers should have the same hourly earnings as full-time workers and should have equivalent benefits, seniority, and chance of promotion. The European Union already protects part-time workers from discrimination. 

• Create high-quality part-time jobs: The Netherlands and Germany have laws saying that, if a full-time employee asks to work shorter hours, the employer must accommodate the request unless it will be a hardship to the business. As a weaker but still effective policy, we could give businesses tax incentives to their employees the option of working shorter hours. These policies would give Americans the option of working less and consuming less. Even a relatively small change could make a big difference. The average American works 1,817 hours a year, and the average West European works 1,562 hours a year. A recent study by Harvard University economist Mark Weisbrot found that, if Americans worked as few hours as West Europeans, it would lower our energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent. More important, Weisbrot found that, if the developing nations imitate the American model of work hours, world temperatures will rise 4.5 degrees by 2050, all else being equal. But if the developing nations imitate the European model of work hours, world temperatures will rise by 2.5 degrees—a very substantial difference caused by work-time alone, apart from other policies to reduce emissions. 

Moving to a European model of work hours would not involve any great sacrifice. On the contrary, I think that West Europeans are better off than Americans because they have more time for their families and their own interests, rather than having more freeways and bigger SUVs. 

Berkeley took a leading role in promoting the civil rights movement and feminist movement during the 20th century. Now it is time for us to take a leading role in promoting the movement toward shorter work hours and simpler living that is a political imperative during the age of global warming. 


Charles Siegel is the author of The End of Economic Growth.