I’ve been thinking about economic systems and the huge problems with the way we handle work, employment, pay, and profit in the United States. Another way is possible.
The model of work I am here envisioning recognizes that:
• Sustainable societies are built on sustainable economies which are built on sustainable lives of the workers in them.
• Personal time is the key finite resource, not an abstract like money.
(If worker time is treated as the resource of greatest availability, workers are exploited.)
• Extractive capitalism is built on an unrealistic model of eternal growth and payment of ever-growing returns to investors. This is inherently unsustainable as it continually removes value from companies and their workers. Alternatively, worker ownership retains value within the company and among workers, and as a by-product strengthens local economies, which usually helps with long-term company success.
• Investment is still needed to start companies, though, so the initial extractive return on investment must be tapered to allow the company to become sustainable. One possibility: companies start with 52% worker-ownership, 48% investor ownership. Every three years 1% of investor ownership shifts to worker-ownership (dividends shifting to compensation, usually to new workers as the company grows). After 16 years the company is 100% worker-owned.
• Every human deserves dignity in their work and an equal opportunity for time away from work. Early attempts to legislate this fundamental right gave us the weekend and a cap on workday length. The next step is to pry apart compensation from hours labored; we live in a time of great prosperity and there is enough to go around if we divide it equitably. Therefore, this model assumes that the total company amount of compensation to workers is divided evenly among them so that all have at least a livable wage. There are no tiers of pay. All worker-owners benefit from company success or feel the squeeze equally when the business or economy is struggling.
• The minimum time a worker has to spend at work in a given week is the distinguishing difference between workers at different levels. An entry level worker commits 35 hours a week to the company. As they grow in experience and efficiency, this time tapers down. Every two years worked with the company reduces the minimum hours required by 1 hour. Every eighth year this drops an extra hour. Thus, after six years with the company, a worker’s minimum hours are 32. After eight years, they are 30. After sixteen years with the company, a worker only needs to work half-days (or however it makes sense to allocate their 25 hours). After thirty-two years, they’re involved a couple days a week. After forty-eight years, just 5 hours a week. This is enough for their wealth of experience to still benefit the business and for them to still be engaged in public life, but at a level that respects their reduced energy for work at their age. After fifty-six years as a worker, they have no further obligation and pensions kick in.
• Workers moving from one job to another will enter at a time level reflective of their experience with that kind of work AND the age of the new company. For example, a worker who has 20 years experience leaves to join a 10 year old company and instead of working their old minimum of 23 hours a week, they will work a minimum of 29 because the new company is still growing and everyone there works that many hours.
• Workers are incentivized to remain with a company and help it grow because switching to a new, younger company will generally mean committing more hours of time per week and delaying their pension (unless they subsequently switch to a more established company and are able to negotiate recognition of all their experience).
• Workers are incentivized to be more efficient (because they want to work only their minimum hours) and companies are incentivized to right-size their business to match their market (because they want to keep worker compensation good while those workers put in just the minimum hours).
• Some businesses will be more profitable than others as economic factors fluctuate. Their worker-owners will decide how to use those profits, either applying them to the company for improvements or growth, sharing them out to the current worker-owners, or adding new worker-owners to diffuse the compensation across more people (enabling further profit or growth and possibly allowing all worker-owners to commit below minimum weekly hours, thus realizing the benefits of long-term employment sooner).
A common pattern which might emerge under the WOTICETT model is that of workers of medium experience temporarily becoming involved in two companies (or double roles at one company) to increase their resources before dropping back to just one when they become parents or need to be more available for elder care.
For example, Chris started work young and joined a company at age 17. At age 27, with ten years experience and working 29 hours a week, Chris gets invited to participate in a friend’s new company. The first couple years are intense, working 64 hours a week, but then that number begins to drop until at age 37, Chris is working a total of 52 hours a week (23 hours a week at the first company and 29 hours a week at the friend’s company).
Chris’s partner, Devin, is five years younger. Devin helped care for child siblings when young and didn’t join a company until age 22. Now, at age 32, Devin is working 29 hours a week. Thanks to the resources they’ve built up through Chris’s decade of double pay, the couple has enormous flexibility should they decide to have children.
They might choose that Devin will become a full-time parent. In that case, when their kid is ten years old, Chris will be 47 and working 40 hours a week (17 hours a week at one job and 23 at the other), and Devin will be 42 and fully available for parenting and life admin tasks.
Or maybe after all those years of double work, Chris becomes the full-time parent. Then when the kid is ten years old, Chris at age 47 is fully available and Devin at age 42 is working 23 hours a week. They’re living on one income instead of two, but they have a lot of free time to make living cheaper more possible.
Or if they carry on as they had been, when the kid is ten, Chris at age 47 is working 40 hours a week (17 hours a week at one job and 23 at the other), and Devin at age 42 is working 23 hours a week. They still have three incomes and though they still probably need some assistance with childcare, they do have considerable family time.
In those three scenarios, when the kid is twenty, Chris is 57 and Devin is 52, and they’re either:
- working 27 hours a week (10 at one job and 17 at the other) and not committed to company work, respectively, and living on two incomes;
- not committed to company work and working 17 hours a week, respectively, and living on one income;
- working 27 and 17 hours a week, respectively, and living on three incomes.
All of these scenarios—along with the variants in which Chris drops back down to just one job or where one of them returns to work when the kid is 15 or 20 years old—are vastly more appealing than the average options most families are facing today.
They become even more appealing as we roll out the scenarios into later years of life. At ages 67 and 62, Chris and Devin are either:
- working 14 hours a week (4 at one job and 10 at the other) and not committed to company work, respectively, and living on two incomes;
- not committed to company work and working 10 hours a week, respectively, and living on one income;
- working 14 and 10 hours a week, respectively, and living on three incomes.
At ages 73 and 68, they are either:
- working 7 hours a week (pensioned at one job and 7 at the other) and not committed to company work, respectively, and living on two incomes (or one income plus whatever level a pension is set at);
- not committed to company work and working 7 hours a week, respectively, and living on one income;
- working 7 hours a week, each, and living on three incomes (or two incomes plus whatever level a pension is set at).
At ages 83 and 78, they are either:
- pensioned from two jobs and not committed to company work, respectively, and living on two incomes (or two times whatever level a pension is set at);
- not committed to company work and pensioned, respectively, and living on one income (or whatever level a pension is set at);
- pensioned from two jobs and pensioned, respectively, and living on three incomes (or three times whatever level a pension is set at).
That is a healthier life than most have now.
Would a model like this require some major changes from how things currently work? Yes. Is it realistically possible? Absolutely.
The current model has been staggering along for decades with a few exploiters buying IMAX screens for their superyachts (or whatever that decade’s equivalent of gross excess happens to be) while an alarming percentage of people struggle and suffer, working three jobs to be able to pay for childcare.
If we can limp along with this broken system, we can certainly afford a different one which, even if not ideal, lifts millions of people up to vastly better lives.