The must-read op-ed in today’s morning papers is this piece in the New York Times, on “The Human Disaster of Unemployment.” Interestingly, it’s co-authored by two economists who normally do not agree on very much: Dean Baker, from the left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Kevin Hassett, from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. They call attention to the growing problem of long-term unemployment, which they characterize as “nothing short of a national emergency,” and they usefully summarize some of the grim consequences of unemployment, such as dramatically higher mortality rates for the unemployed; higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and psychiatric illnesses; higher divorce rates; and lower earnings for the children of unemployed workers.
They advocate for a variety of government interventions to deal with the unemployment program, but the one that intrigues me the most is the idea of job-sharing:
The recent bill that extended the payroll tax cut included a provision that covered the cost of work-sharing programs in the 23 states that already had them as part of their unemployment insurance systems, and it helped other states start such programs. This should slow job destruction in those states, which will improve chances for all workers seeking employment. From now on, the first line of defense during a recession should be to expand work sharing rather than simply extend unemployment benefits.
Given the huge psychic and economic traumas caused by unemployment; given the fact that the unemployed worker’s skills tend to erode dramatically during periods of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment; and given the fact that the longer a worker is unemployed, the more remote are the chances that she will ever find a job again, it makes a lot of sense that we as a society do all we can to help workers stay on the job. During economic downturns, job sharing shows much promise as a way to do this. Anything the government can do to promote job sharing and eliminate barriers to implementing job sharing on a mass scale should be strongly encouraged.
Job sharing also makes a lot of sense for another reason. As Alternet’s Sara Robinson recently pointed out in this excellent piece, a strong body of research suggests that “shorter work hours actually raise productivity and profits — and overtime destroys them.” Job-sharing would entail shorter work weeks which, as Robinson demonstrates, would likely be more economically efficient. Job sharing could be a powerful tool not only for dealing with our severe long-term unemployment problem, but also for reforming dysfunctional workplace cultures that demand long hours from employees, even when those long hours have few if any demonstrated benefits.