05/28/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2012

We Work Too Hard

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, author and professor of sustainable development Tim Jackson suggests we change the way we work. He writes that we should work less, focus our work on helping others and care less about productivity and more about making sure everyone gets a chance to work.

Jackson's book Prosperity Without Growth is an exciting read. He tackles economics and climate science in one fell swoop by arguing that we will run into real roadblocks if we try to avoid the catastrophic effects of unemployment and climate change while maintaining an ethos that demands more growth every quarter of every year. While most economists would scoff at the idea of restricting GDP, Al Gore has argued that quarterly earnings reports should be stopped to prevent companies from valuing short-term growth over what is good for the country and the planet. Many economists and environmentalists recognize that fighting climate change will reduce growth somewhat, costing between 1 and 2 percent of GDP. So not everyone believes in the doctrine of productivity at all costs.

Paul Krugman has been pointing out that productivity often doesn't increase by policies that are supposed to create it. Since deregulation in the 1980s and the rise of leveraged buy outs and shadow banking, productivity has actually slowed down. This not only calls into question how we think and talk about productivity, but whether trying to increase it is good for the American workforce.

Productivity is supposed to increase living standards and income and actually reduce work hours. That isn't often the case in practice. The drive for higher productivity is usually predicated on the desire to eke out more income only. This is a miscalculation and a misunderstanding of productivity's other goal, to increase leisure. As Jeffrey D. Sachs writes in The Price of Civilization, "The greatest benefits of higher income accrue to the poorest households, to enable them to meet their unmet needs. For the middle class and especially for the rich, many factors other than income are far more important for personal happiness. Good governance, more trust in the community, a happier married life, more time for friends and colleagues, and meaningful and secure work all rank as far more important than another few percent of personal income."

Sachs mentions how Americans have little say over work sharing compared to northern Europeans, which is a point Jackson also raises. Jackson writes, "One solution would be to accept the productivity increases, shorten the workweek and share the available work. Such proposals -- familiar since the 1930s -- are now enjoying something of a revival in the face of continuing recession. The New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, proposes a 21-hour workweek." Reducing work hours is a topic I also touched on in a previous blog post.

Work sharing is more palatable to many in the business world than explicitly reining in GDP. In this economy especially, it makes sense to offer incentives for companies to institute work sharing in lieu of firing workers. This is just what Obama did in February, signing the Middle Class Relief and Job Creation Act, which will let Washington pay unemployment insurance benefits for workers in work sharing programs who would have otherwise been laid off.

Lincoln Electric of Ohio is certainly not a company that espouses Jackson's recommendation to slow down the pace of efficiency. Lincoln Electric drives its workers hard, with the average work week in excess of 40 hours. But in the recession, the company reduced work hours as it has historically done. Utilizing this policy has avoided major layoffs since World War II. Paul Solomon reported for News Hour: "And, yet, here's the actual bottom line. For more than a century, Lincoln Electric has made money the old-fashioned way and is on track for $200 million in profits in 2011, while offering its workers essentially lifetime employment in still somewhat rusty Cleveland, Ohio."

While Lincoln Electric's frenetic work pace does not make it the perfect example of Jackson's philosophy, the company's concern for all of its workers illustrates Jackson's principles beautifully. We are probably a long time from instituting reduced work hours in the United States, where political compromise has ground to a halt and seemingly radical ideas are flagged as socialist. The best route toward an economy that increases access opportunities for more workers (and a higher quality of life) is through incentives like those the federal government has instituted and others it could institute in the future. Tax incentives could also be used to get more companies reducing work hours and hiring more people.

Politicians often use sports analogies to describe their debates and scrums, talking about how much skin they have in the game or how their opponents have moved the goal posts. It would behoove us to remember that slow and steady often wins the race, just as a more balanced approach to work life can be more beneficial than the helter-skelter mindset of our cut-throat labor market.