Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Less Work, More Jobs

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Quick: How many jobs has the U.S. economy created each month in the past year? 125,000? 150,000? These are the numbers we see reported, but actually, over the past year of data, the private sector alone created more than 2 million new jobs a month—the problem is, each month it also destroyed nearly as many. The number we see reported is the difference between jobs created and jobs destroyed.

This isn’t just trivia: the point is that the economy is much more dynamic than we may think. If we could keep creating 2 million jobs a month, while stanching job losses, we could get people back to work much faster.

“Work-sharing”—or “short-work”—could make this prospect a reality. Today, American companies facing weak demand typically lay off workers, even though that decision can be costly down the road (rehiring and training are expensive). A work-sharing program would allow companies to instead make temporary, across-the-board reductions in hours worked by (and wages paid to) the same number of employees; the government, instead of paying unemployment benefits to laid-off workers, would make up much of the difference in pay.

Work-sharing is not a new idea—Germany used this system throughout the Great Recession to help keep its unemployment rate low, and some U.S. states have work-sharing systems in place, although they tend to be poorly publicized and poorly funded—but it’s an idea worth trying on a larger scale. It has garnered support from economists on the right and the left, and it won’t break the bank. So why aren’t we doing it?

Next idea: Abolish the Secret Ballot

Don Peck is an Atlantic features editor and author of Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.
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