Solving Unemployment through New Uses of Time

The events of the past few years—financial meltdown of 2008, the failed Copenhagen talks and increasing climate destabilization, the BP oil disaster, and the financial crises in the Eurozone—make it clear that the business-as-usual economy is both wreaking havoc on the planet and failing on its own terms. But so far, the conversation about how to transform this economic model has been stuck in neutral. Traveling around North America discussing my new book, Plenitude, I am increasingly convinced that a key obstacle to moving forward is a lack of confidence that there is another way. To gain that confidence, we need to articulate a model of how a sustainable economy could work.

The core insight of my model is the need to transform how people spend their time. Its first principle is to reverse the increased in time devoted to the market that has occurred in recent decades. (The US, most of the global South and some OECD countries have experienced rising hours.) In the US, annual hours of work rose more than 200 from 1973 to 2006. Longer hours raise the ecological footprint, both because of more production, and because time-stressed households have higher-impact lifestyles. Getting to sustainability will require slowing down the pace of life, which means working less.

Shorter hours are also key to solving the unemployment crisis. In the US, it will require 11 million new jobs to return to pre-crash levels. That breaks down to 500,000 new jobs a month for almost two years. That’s an unrealistic number, unless we address hours of work. In comparison to Western European countries, where hours are much shorter, the U.S. has to generate between 6 and 20% more in Gross Domestic Production to create each new job.

The recession has gotten us started down this road. When it began the workweek stood at 34.1 hours, but by April of 2010 it was 33.3. A rising workweek is a strong desiderata of recovery for mainstream economists, but they fail to see that it makes job creation harder, contributes to stress among employees, and exacerbates ecological degradation. Declining hours could re-balance the labor market and free up time for people to engage in low-impact, self-providing activities that reduce their dependence on the market. These include growing food, generating energy, building housing, and making small-scale manufactured goods, such as apparel and household items.

This do-it-yourself activity is highly satisfying for people, because it helps them learn new skills and allows them to be creative. It also turns out to be the catalyst for start-up businesses and second careers as people take their newfound skills and passions and earn money with them. Freeing up time from the formal market is one condition for incubating a green, small business sector. Self-providing is also part of how we can construct more economic interdependence. As people begin to do more self-providing, they barter, trade, and share on a local level. This builds wealth in social capital, which enhances well-being and security.

Finally, the fourth principle of plenitude is that people will consume differently. With more time and less disposable income, they’ll shift to buying fewer new products, and prefer goods that are longer lasting and repairable. They’ll also participate more in economies of re-sale and exchange. I call that “true materialism,” a consumer practice that respects the materiality of the earth.

Perhaps the most important dimension of plenitude, in contrast to the dominant discourse on sustainability, is that it is not a techno-fix. We do need to change the technologies we use, especially in the energy sector. But this model shows us that we can move a long way toward sustainability by focusing on how we spend our time and organize our economic lives. Shifting to slow, small-scale, low impact ways of living and producing can yield dramatic reductions in footprint, even without new technological systems.

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24 Responses to “Solving Unemployment through New Uses of Time”

  1. Carol says:

    Juliet, for those of us who are debt-free, this is a perfect model. Of course, I am biased, since my husband and I have been living this way for a number of years!

    What advice/thoughts/ideas do you have for the many people who have been sucked into debt servitude?

  2. DJ says:

    Have you read the book “Switch?” It has some interesting ideas on why getting folks to change (even for the better) is so difficult.

  3. Juliet Schor says:

    Dear DJ: No, I haven’t. Who wrote it? Juliet

  4. Juliet Schor says:

    Thanks Carol. I think the program in the book “your money or your life” is good–track spending, scrutinize purchases and try and save.
    A lot depends on the starting point and one’s earning potential. But getting conscious about debt is the first step. My earlier book, THe Overspent
    American has some ideas on this.

  5. This is pretty good. I have pursued something similar. It also allows for significant cost of living reductions which can be saved and invested in the old economy. That way you’ll have a foot in the old economy and a foot in the new economy and be better off regardless of what happens.

  6. Juliet Schor says:

    Dear Jacob,
    Thanks for yours. Do you want to say more about what you’re doing, to share with others? Best, Juliet

  7. Expat says:

    Heard your talk on C-SPAN; very thought-provoking. The concept of voluntarily withdrawing — to the extent possible — from the “old” economy, is very powerful, and I wholeheartedly embrace it. But I worry about the creation of two economies in the sense that the “old” economy will surely siphon off the most talented and leave others behind. While your book suggests that those of us who are left behind can have good and even great lives, it seems like a bad idea in terms of democratic politics to have a two-tiered economy. What are your thoughts?

  8. Juliet Schor says:

    Dear Expat,
    Thanks for yours. Your point is well-taken. I do not see this strategy as an equilibrium, but as a transition. The idea is that over time the
    BAU economy shrinks, and the new, green clean economy grows. I agree that we don’t want a two-tier economy or society, although I might also
    point out that we already have that to a certain extent, and that the growing unemployment problem will accelerate that divide. But the
    plenitude idea is for transition.

    I don’t pretend that this is a process without difficulties–preventing
    pushback from BAU firms is a key problem, as is getting the govt to stop subsidizing them. But I think that building an alternative to
    them is more realistic than transforming them. Paradigm changes happen not because old dogs learn new tricks, but because puppies
    are born, grow up differently than their parents, and eventually eclipse them. That’s the idea anyway.

  9. william methven says:

    Listening to the CD. Great work!
    One thought on reading the summary above is that what keeps us so busy & competitive in the industrial growth economy is the debt economy ie money is created as a debt & interest is charged – old fashioned usury. So whatever we borrow we must payback + interest. Where do we earn the interest? Why by taking it from someone else, competing & working hard in the capitalist society.
    Read The Furure of Money by Bernard Lietaer (currently out of print but he has a new book coming out later this year)
    Juliet may cover this. I haven’t listened to the whole CD yet.

  10. Juliet Schor says:

    Dear William,
    Thanks for yours. This requires a longer post which I will do sometime soon. Basically, it’s true that in a financialized economy, with a lot of debt financing, interest is required. But it’s really subsidiary to the requirements of profit-making in a capitalist economy–owners of capital will shut down/move away/etc. if they don’t get their profits. Interest comes from those. So while it’s true that when economies “financialize” (give more power/profits, etc to financial capital) the requirements for growth will rise. But even without that, there is an imperative to growth w/in the capitalist economy. I think Lietaer and others who see money as THE cause of the problem overestimate it–if a capitalist economy operated with minimal debt, and invested only through retained earnings (rather than borrowed money) its operation wouldn’t be so different. The rate of growth is not determined by finance, but by the underlying rate of profit in the “real” economy. Some of the people who think that if only we could get rid of fractional banking or the FED or change currency regimes fail to address the larger power relations and the monopoly on means of production of a small group. The way money workos is a reflection of those power/distributional relations. One has to address those as well, and cannot expect to change the system merely by changing monetary relations.

  11. [...] for fixing pretty much everything (unemployment, overconsumption, the economy, general ennui) by working less. Amen to [...]

  12. Juliet Schor says:

    Thanks! Each month as the unemployment figures come out, I am more and more convinced about this approach.

  13. FrancoisDM says:

    Dear Juliet,
    I saw a short review of your book in Time. I am really glad to see that our relation to Work is now seriously questioned even in the US!

    As you might know, there is an emerging movement (both grass-root and academic) in Europe called Economic De-growth (‘décroissance’ in French), which in particular calls for working less (and suggests the 3-day working week) in order to achieve ecological sustainability and social equity.

    To get a better idea of what is at stake with the idea of De-growth, you can read the book from Serge Latouche, “Farewell to Growth”, Malden, MA: Polity, 2009, 180 pp., $19.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-7456-4617-6.

    You can also visit:

    Thanks again!
    Francois DM
    Cambridge, MA

  14. Juliet Schor says:

    Dear Francois,
    Thank you for your post. I do know about this movement, cited it in Plenitude, and am involved in a number of North American efforts that are working along similar lines. Are you an economist? Juliet

  15. FrancoisDM says:

    Thanks for your reply Juliet. I am glad that you did not fall into the trap of the (numerous) misconceptions about what the degrowth movement really is. As far as the NA efforts you talk about, I also follow the SCORAI initiative you might refer to.
    For now, I am not an economist but simply a morally concerned citizen (M.S. in Civil Engineering). However, I am quite involved in the academic side of this movement (e.g., I founded DegrowthPedia in order to increase education and information about Degrowth especially in the English-speaking countries). I also plan to use my experience and start a PhD in Ecological-Economics in the next few months dealing with a critical topic…
    All the best.

  16. [...] one because I think they will work hand-in-hand in the transformation of our working standards. In order to employ everyone we cannot afford to trust in GDP growth – it actually, will not happen. Equally important is [...]

  17. LucF says:

    I totally agree with you Dr. Schor.
    I am a French citizen but I have been living in the USA since my 20s. I currently live in Dallas, TX. I totally belive though that the capitalistic model can coexist with what you mention.
    I am also convinced that ecologic economics and “eco-capitalism” in the “noble” definition can coexist. I also believe that unemployment can be dramatically reduce by turning to ecology and hobby. And that includes re-thinking how we use our time and what for…. Despite a MBA in finance my spirit is more driven by sustainability, quality use of time, ecology and alternative energy … and very little driven by capitalistic concept of acquiring wealth and success through business practices. It is very interesting though to understand the underlying of Capilalism and profit making. But that should not be an end.
    I like what you believe in. The only problem is that you will only find marginal sponsors and supporter to support and or “finance” your ideas and possible undertaking in a large scale. The ideas are in a “niche market” and people are prisoners of the “reality” they perceive. We say in French “le myth de la caverne” … Plato… there are too many people to educate, then convince of your ideas: you can only hope the historical movement will keep carrying you on its wings … and it will. But slow. It is no revolution but evolution … and it will happen by necessity … or else …
    My approach is more philosophical: “change yourself first … before trying to change others”.
    But we need people like you, some of your readers and myself … if only as a “counterpower” or create friction so that the situation does not get worse too fast …
    BUT you and I and other, we will survive … because we saw it coming… and we take it as a challenge…It is part of what we fight for … and who we are …
    I love your thinking process.

    Francois, etes vous Francais? PhD in Economic Ecology is the way to go. Ot a Master from sweden in sustainability from bth. Free of charge if in sweden…

  18. [...] work hours on energy use A micro-analysis of time and income effects (2009) Blogs Juliet Schor: [ unemployment through new uses of time (23 June 2010) European Union European Commission: [ [...]

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    Thanks for yours. What are you specifically referring to? Juliet

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