Our productivity is vastly greater than previous generations. Why hasn't the workweek shrunk to match?
[Previous: The end of the labor economy]
The age of the robots is coming.
Technology is getting better and better each year, allowing robots to do previously-unimaginable tasks like sewing clothes or picking fruit. With AI improving by leaps and bounds, they’ll be able to do more and more by themselves. We can look forward to a very near future when they’ll take over most kinds of labor, from agriculture to construction to manufacturing to driving.
The good robot future and the bad robot future
Whether this is good or bad depends on how society responds. If we deploy robots on a mass scale without changing anything else, we’ll be throwing millions of people out of work. Unions will crumble without the leverage of a strike. Communities that relied on vanished industries will be plunged into profound poverty.
A world that follows this path will be a world with an even sharper divide between the haves and the have-nots: an investor class that owns the robots, a few well-paid engineers who design and maintain them, and a large, permanently unemployed underclass. It’s a recipe for riots, social unrest, and destructive populism.
On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be this way. The autonomous economy has the potential to liberate us from toil. If its benefits are spread around equitably, it could catapult humanity into the post-scarcity golden age our ancestors dreamed of.
If we want to make the better future real, we should be discussing fair ways to distribute the robot surplus. Here’s one: Instead of giving jobs entirely to robots and laying human workers off, we could share jobs with robots—letting them do some of the work and reserving the rest for people.
It’s easy to imagine tax schemes that would incentivize this. It would be like Kurzarbeit, Germany’s part-time job-sharing scheme, except on a permanent basis.
If we did this, it would be possible for us to work less while keeping the same pay and same standard of living. We can reap the benefits of automation in the form of more leisure time.
There’s nothing sacred about forty hours
The standard 40-hour, 5-day workweek isn’t natural or historically foreordained. It’s a hard-won victory of the union era.
Before labor unions, it was common for bosses to demand workdays as long as sixteen or seventeen hours. The great freethinker Robert Ingersoll wrote about this in 1890: “For a man to get up before daylight and work till after dark, life is of no particular importance. He simply earns enough one day to prepare himself to work another.”
The labor movement, marching and rallying with slogans like “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will,” demanded and won the eight-hour day. We’re still benefiting from that achievement.
But why stop there?
There’s no reason, other than inertia, that we can’t reduce the workweek further. Even before the coming of the robots, technological advances over the decades enabled us to produce more and more with the same effort. On a per-hour basis, productivity per worker is four times greater than in the 1950s. This means that, in theory, we could all work 10 hours a week and enjoy a 1950s standard of living.
Of course, some of us wouldn’t want to give up the internet, modern medicine, and other conveniences. However, our productivity has still risen just since the 1990s. Even if we insisted on a 1990s standard of living, we could obtain it by working only 29 hours a week!
Imagine if everyone worked four days a week. Every week would be a three-day weekend. That’s 50% more leisure time for relaxing, catching up on chores, or going on trips.
Or imagine if we all worked six-hour days. Every shift would end two hours earlier than you’re used to. Instead of getting home in the evening with barely enough time to gulp down dinner and go to bed, you’d get home in the middle of the afternoon. The benefit could be even greater for careers where people are routinely worked to exhaustion, like doctors or truck drivers.
Economists have foreseen this for a long time. John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that the average workweek in 2030 would be as short as 15 hours. Granted, we’re still a few years out, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to hit the mark.
Why are we still working so much?
The standard “greedy capitalist” answer is that those at the top claim the lion’s share of the benefits for themselves. They get steadily richer, while those on the bottom work as hard as ever.
That’s part of the reason, but it doesn’t explain why the workweek hasn’t shrunk for anyone. The most privileged white-collar workers, who have the most leverage to demand better working conditions—lawyers, bankers, programmers—even they’re working more grueling hours than ever.
Another part of the reason is that we’ve spent our surplus on buying more stuff, rather than buying back our time. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TVs—many of them bought on credit. And if you have all those, why not a vacation home, or a boat, or a private plane?
We’re bathed in advertising that equates more spending with greater happiness. What’s more, we feel a natural desire to keep up with our peers. When you see your neighbors acquiring more and more, you feel inadequate if you can’t do the same. The result is an endless treadmill of consumption.
The antidote to this thinking is in a famous anecdote about the author Joseph Heller:
At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.”
We have enough stuff. We don’t need bigger houses, more toys, or fancier food to be happy and content. There are poor people who can’t afford life’s necessities, but the rest of us truly have no need of more money or more possessions.
The tools for happiness are already at our fingertips. We just have to use them, and for that, we need time. We can have that, if we work less.
Make no mistake: I’m not talking about making an individual choice to cut back on consumption. Rather, we as a society have to decide that we have enough for everyone to be comfortable. Our collective goal should be to pursue a good life, rather than merely a richer life.
This vision is already coming true in some places. Some countries and companies have experimented with shortening the workweek, and most have seen positive results like happier employees and improved morale, with no loss of productivity. This is an encouraging start, but we can do more.
This isn’t to say that we’ll never want anything else we don’t already have. But it does mean that, for most of us, the pursuit of happiness through material goods is past the point of diminishing returns. We’d be better served by scaling back and enjoying our lives, instead of forever pursuing the hollow goal of more.