In describing his economic agenda last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that “people need to work longer hours.” While he quickly tried to walk this one back, there can be little doubt that Mr. Bush meant what he said. It came in the context of describing his plans to get to his absurd target of 4.0 percent annual GDP growth.
This isn’t the first time Bush had said that he wanted to get more work out of people. Back in April he called for raising the normal retirement age for Social Security benefits. (It’s not clear he realized that the retirement age has already been raised to 66 and will soon be increasing to 67.)
Certainly Bush is not alone. There are people in both parties who argue that people need to work more. This comes up in a variety of contexts, like reducing the number of workers getting disability benefits or weakening requirements for overtime pay. While Bush’s comments may have been poorly chosen for a presidential candidate, they represent a commonly held view in policy debates.
This could make for a very clear choice in the 2016 election. The two leading Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, have both proposed policies intended to make it easier for people to work less.
Both candidates have endorsed policies to promote paid sick leave and paid family leave. These policies are intended to get the United States in line with the rest of the world. Every other wealthy country has guaranteed some amount of paid family leave and paid sick days to its workers for decades.
Many states have already moved in this direction. For more than a decade, California has had a policy giving workers paid family leave through a state funded system comparable to Social Security. The predictions of doom from the business lobbyists have been proven wrong. Businesses live with the system with little problem. The same is true with measures in Connecticut and New Jersey.
Sanders has gone beyond Clinton in proposing that workers should be guaranteed at least two weeks a year in paid vacation. This would still leave the United States far behind most other wealthy countries, which have five or even six weeks a year of vacation as a legal mandate, but it would certainly be big step towards ensuring that workers can count on some time off each year.
Historically workers have taken the benefits from productivity growth in both higher income and also in more leisure time. This continues to be true in other wealthy countries, but the workweek has been largely frozen at 40 hours in the United States, since it first became the legal standard in the late 1930s.
While other countries shortened workweeks and mandated paid time off, there has been little change in federal standards in almost eighty years. The result is that people in the United States now work on average 20-30 percent more hours in each than workers in countries Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark.
The divergence in paths stems in large part from the fact that benefits like health-care insurance and defined benefit pensions were provided by employers and not the government. These benefits create large overhead expenses that make it cheaper for an employer to have their workers put in more hours rather than hire more workers.
This is changing now. While it is unfortunate for workers, defined benefit pensions are rapidly disappearing. One advantage of a defined contribution pension is that it has low overhead costs, so employers have little reason not to add workers.
And the Affordable Care Act (ACA) makes it possible for workers to get health insurance outside of employment. There is already evidence that a large number of young parents have used this opportunity to work part-time instead of full-time. The number of young parents who report voluntarily working part-time has risen sharply over the last year and a half since the main provisions of the ACA took effect. Many older workers also seem to be taking advantage of this option.
At a time when the economy is still far below full employment by most measures, it is more than a bit odd that Bush and other politicians are telling people that they should work more. If the Democratic nominee is actively pushing policies that will make it easier for people to choose to work less, then we are likely to have a very interesting presidential race.