Keynes, Staff, and the 15 Hour Work Week

The paradox of higher ed employment growth and constant work.

April 27, 2015
Everybody that I know in higher ed works all the time. Everyone is juggling multiple projects, tight deadlines, and demanding obligations. Everyone works at night, on the weekends, and all too often during vacations. What is going on?
In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that the work week in the 21st century would shrink to 15 hours. Keynes extrapolated from long running trends of economic growth, and concluded that by today 15 hours of weekly work would be more than sufficient to meet our material needs. For Keynes, the real problem of the 21st century would be what to do with all of our new found leisure time.  
Keynes wrote:
"Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”
It is with the total failure of Keynes’ prediction that I read (and watched the video) the NYTimes article Cheaper Robots, Fewer Workers. This article (and video) are the first in a NYTimes Robotica series stories that will examine “how robots are poised to change the way we do business and conduct our daily lives.”  

China is moving quickly to replace factory workers with factory robots. The reasons for the substitution of capital for labor are all the usual ones. Workers in China are getting more expensive. The long run demographic trends for the Chinese working population are not looking promising, as China’s ill-considered one child policy will guarantee that China will grow old before it grows rich. Factory work is growing more technical, but Chinese college graduates (China now enrolls 25.5 million undergrads) have no desire to work on the factory floor.

Will the robotics revolution in the U.S. replace so much work that the 15 hour week will finally become a reality? No. What is more probable is that jobs will become both more scarce and more intense. 

I think we are seeing this labor market dynamic play out on our campuses. Our institutions are extremely reluctant to hire. In a volatile economy and an increasingly competitive and uncertain postsecondary competitive market it makes sense to keep costs as variable as possible. It is much easier to hire than to fire. Positions go unfilled. When hiring does occur it is likely to be for temporary or term positions.  
The result is that everybody works all the time to meet the demands of the work. Projects are thinly staffed, as those with full-time jobs do the work of all the missing employees.  
Where I have trouble squaring what I see and what I read is in the area of postsecondary staff. I read all the time about the growth of staff in relation to faculty, and how out of control staff hiring is driving up higher ed costs. (See Administrators Ate My Tuition) for one example. The numbers do indeed seem worrying. From 1987 to 2011 the nation’s colleges and and universities added over 517,000 administrators and professional employees. During that same period the number of full-time faculty increased only by about 238,000 (from 523,000 to 761,000). The big growth was in part-time faculty, increasing from about 270,000 in 1987 to over 760,000 in 2011.

If we are hiring all this staff then how come everybody is working all the time?  

If there is higher ed staff bloat I’m not seeing it. (Although you could side with Upton Sinclair in this case, as I may be a classic case of his famous quip that: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I am that man.
Why do higher ed staff work all the time if so many higher ed staff (in relation to faculty and enrollment trends) have been hired?
Is this a story of too much work or too little productivity?
How many hours do you work a week?


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