The decline of drudgery and the paradox of hard work

by on July 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm in Economics, History, The Arts, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is a new paper (pdf) by Brendan Epstein and Miles S. Kimball, the abstract is here:

We develop a theory that focuses on the general equilibrium and long-run macro-economic consequences of trends in job utility. Given secular increases in job utility, work hours per capita can remain approximately constant over time even if the income effect of higher wages on labor supply exceeds the substitution effect. In addition, secular improvements in job utility can be substantial relative to welfare gains from ordinary technological progress. These two implications are connected by an equation flowing from optimal hours choices: improvements in job utility that have a significant effect on labor supply tend to have large welfare effects.

I view this hypothesis as consistent with my view that we should be utility optimists but revenue pessimists.  Here is a closely related paper I once wrote with Alex.

The pointer is from Claudia Sahm.

1 Beliavsky July 9, 2014 at 2:21 pm

I think there’s a typo in “we should we utility optimists” — second “we” should be “be”.

Thanks for your blog.

2 Gilbert July 9, 2014 at 10:21 pm

That’s epic, kid

3 Slocum July 9, 2014 at 3:03 pm

I don’t think any of their 4 possible explanations for the paradox of hard work capture the most likely cause — namely that employers rationally refuse to offer the option of more leisure time (either in the form of fewer weekly hours or more vacation time) because they would tend to attract the least ambitious workers.

4 Uninformed Observer July 9, 2014 at 3:20 pm

…except that that’s not true. Lots of employers offer more leisure time, especially as paid vacation. Weekly hours not so much, but I think it’s not so much that employers “refuse to offer it” – whatever that means – but because the US business week has certain rhythms that make it hard to be productive for 20 hours a week. It’s hard to get things done with people who are only in the office during certain time slots. Much easier to plan around infrequent vacations, even if in the aggregate they represent more time off.

In any case, advancement is offered to those who do better work, and more of it. In this great nation, we are all of us employed by mutual consent. Which means I still have a job because my employer thinks my work output is worth more than he’s paying me. If I work more, he’s willing to pay me more… which is why I work more.

5 Slocum July 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm

“……except that that’s not true. Lots of employers offer more leisure time, especially as paid vacation”

But generally only after a number of years of service (during which time the employee is expected to prove his worth while getting by with a couple of weeks of vacation). You don’t see employers trying to lure new college grads with promises of 4+ weeks of vacation.

“In any case, advancement is offered to those who do better work, and more of it.”

But that’s exactly the point — as an employer, who would you rather hire, the person who wants to work at least full time, advance, and earn as much as possible? Or the person who is more interested in work-life balance?

6 Brian Donohue July 9, 2014 at 4:42 pm

In my experience, beyond entry level jobs, vacation amounts to flex time. No one, upon receiving an extra week of vacation, has their workload reduced by 2%.

7 Cyrus July 9, 2014 at 10:51 pm

If you take your vacation a day or three at a time, this is true.

If you take your year’s vacation all at once, your backups have less flexibility to wait until you are back in the office, and vacation really does reduce workload, or at least the urgent but not really important part that crowds out what you’d rather be working on.

8 Finch July 10, 2014 at 10:57 am

Cyrus is right. With modern connectivity, the long vacation is the only way to go. Leave the office for a week and you will spend three hours a day dealing with panicked questions from staff and colleagues. Go for a month and your teams will need to replace you.

Now, if you’re the kind of guy that, once your team realizes they have replaced you maybe they won’t want to have you back, this tactic is risky. If you are a good value, it works great.

9 Finch July 10, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Take the month of August, if you can.

If you can’t take a full month, take the week around Christmas and the Fourth of July. Go when your colleagues and customers are most likely to be away.

10 Nathan W July 10, 2014 at 11:49 am

The horror of 2 weeks holiday a year is probably a contributing factor to still being a lower earning freelancer.

3-4 weeks? Maybe. But I still apply to jobs with 2 weeks holiday only and ask whether an unpaid extra week or two is an option to create many long weekends when workflow is lower.

I is not a cog. Instead I am a cog on demand, but the rest of the time is mine.

11 GiT July 9, 2014 at 6:56 pm
12 Merijn Knibbe July 9, 2014 at 3:45 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of economists to find a sound, non-trivial, deep definition or operationalization of neoclassical ‘utility’. Dind’t even find an unsound, trivial, shallow one.

13 Dismalist July 9, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Read better.

14 j r July 9, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Sounds like you are looking for a philosophical definition of utility and not an economic one.

15 Utility is a simple concept July 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm

“Utility is nothing more than a way of encoding choice”

– Larry Blume”

16 joan July 9, 2014 at 7:50 pm

We do work less, it is only work hours per capita of market labor that has been nearly constant. The number of hours per week spent on household labor by women has decreased from more than 50 in the 1930s to not much more than 10. Even 80% of mothers now have jobs and hire someone else to watch over their children. Some have taken jobs that men use to do so now men work less too.

17 ladderff July 9, 2014 at 7:54 pm

So in other words, we work more?

18 Nathan W July 10, 2014 at 11:54 am

I don’t usually quite think of it that way.

Not doubting you, but since you mention it, perhaps you know a good source for a quick read on that? Many countries still have women working 50 hours a week in household chores, and these women therefore are not free to supply their time to the non-household-chores economy.

19 Ryan July 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm

I think the Jeremy Greenwood et al paper may be a good place to start. I think it has “engines of liberation” in the title…

As the text makes clear, doing the laundry w/out a washing machine – for example – was an incredibly laborious task.

20 Ryan July 10, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Another way that we work less: We spend more time in retirement.

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