Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

A National Policy For Working Fewer Hours

I'd like to propose a hypothetical Federal law.

"For any hours worked beyond 40 hours per week (in total, across every employer and job held by the individual) the employee must be paid triple his or her normal hourly wage or effective hourly wage, if salaried."

Of course, in practice this would be difficult to pull off. But let's say it did (I know it's a stretch, but humor me). If so, it would likely discourage any employer from making their employees work more than 40 hours per week. And that - limiting our work hours in America - is an idea that's worth exploring.

To me, as much as we work in America has tremendous non-monetary opportunity costs. Here's a sample of what we could be doing if we worked fewer hours:

  • Spending time with our children and families
  • Exercising, sleeping, and other things to improve our health and motivation
  • Participating in leisure activities which reduce stress and increase happiness
  • Volunteering, and participating in civic life
  • Learning or working on entrepreneurial projects
  • Going to church or participating in some other spiritual development
  • Shopping and participating in commercial activities

What I'm getting at is that there are lots of things we could be doing with our time that addresssocial ills we care about solving. Would kids do more homework if their parents were around more? Probably. Would we be less angry and violent if we had more time to rest and recharge? I'd think so. Would we have stronger communities if we felt like we actually had the time to talk with our neighbors? My guess is yes.

For those that care about economic arguments, I think penalizing companies for overworking employees would actually increase productivity and output. Working longer hours, particularly in white collar jobs, is a buffer that covers up bad management. If supervisors knew that they could no longer just force employees to work longer they probably would quickly learn to better manage their employees' time and only assign work that led to results. Applying a modest constraint on workers' time would cause the managers of companies to innovate their own management practices.

This is a side-note, but I also find the American tendency to wrap up our identities in our vocation to be damaging and unsustainable. If we literally weren't allowed to work so much, we would be more likely to define our lives in broader, healthier ways.

Of course, my crude, hypothetical policy of a psuedo-tax on hours worked beyond the first forty isn't the point. The point is that how much we work in America is probably damaging to our individual and collective welfare. Moreover, if we worked less, I would expect it to enhance welfare. 

I don't believe silver bullets which solve all our social problems exist. But finding a way to limit how much time we spending working is as close to a panacea as I've ever imagined.