Experts Said We’d Only Work 15 Hours a Week by 2030. They Were Wrong.
Before the 1980s, we were all but begging the robots to replace us.
Any corporate employee today knows intuitively that the work week is too long. How many times have you been working on a rote or excessively manual task and thought, “this could so easily be automated,” asking yourself why that hasn’t happened yet? If you’ve ever worked in the business world, you have probably spent hundreds of hours of your life that you will never get back entering data into Salesforce or cleaning up formatting in Excel. But future innovation aside, how did we collectively decide that the 9 to 5, 5-days-a-week schedule was a floor rather than a ceiling on our work hours? The truth is, we already have automated so many tasks that are essential to societal function, but it hasn’t spared us any time in the office, as work weeks have only gotten longer.
The narrative that robots taking our jobs is a bad thing is relatively new. Before the 1980s, we were all but begging the robots to replace us. Expert consensus told us that technological advancement should be used to make work more efficient, allowing humans to spend more time on leisure and tasks they actually found interesting. Some were even worried that we wouldn’t know what to do with all our newfound free time, but that seemed like a relatively less troublesome problem than the drudgery of repetitive, relentlessly boring labor that left us with little time to spend with loved ones, community-building, and self-discovery.
In his book “Utopia for Realists,” Rutger Bregman makes the case for a fifteen-hour work week. He explains that the broad consensus among economists and experts until the 1980s was that the workweek would perpetually become shorter over time. Renowned economist John Maynard Keynes gave a speech in 1930 in which he predicted that we’d be working just fifteen hours a week by 2030. Philosopher John Stuart Mill agreed, arguing that the rise of technology should be used to curb working hour. Even capitalist icon and OG CEO Henry Ford was on board. He pioneered the five-day workweek, shortening his employees’ hours because he had found that it increased their productivity when they actually were at work.
So what the heck happened?
Bregman explains that in the 1980s, reality in the labor force took a sharp U-turn away from expert consensus. The workweek in the U.S., which had been shrinking for years, actually started growing. Bregman attributes this unexpected shift to the entrance of women into the workforce (which increased the total number of working hours between couples) and the way technology has enabled work to creep into our personal lives, erasing the boundary between time on the clock and personal time. We’ve basically created the expectation that employees be monitoring their emails at all times and even manufactured entirely “bullshit” jobs that add marginal, if any, value to society but take significant man-hours to complete. David Graeber, who coined the term “bullshit job,” believes that the bullshit economy propagates itself as overpaid and serotonin-depleted white-collar workers, generally in industries like finance, purchase fancy wellness products and lifestyle services just to feel something.
Let’s be honest, you don’t spend all 40+ hours of your workweek supremely productive. Research shows that most of us are just productive for three hours a day. Workers spend much of their time on the clock reading the news, checking social media, and chatting about non-work topics with colleagues. The good news is that not too long ago, experts and business leaders were smart enough to realize this. The bad news is that as long as investors keep wasting money without demanding a more truthful picture of productivity, bullshit will continue to be rewarded while societally useful jobs are under-compensated.
If you’re wondering what I think about the fact that embracing a shorter workweek could also result in job loss for the bullshit class, of which I have been a part, and which admittedly needs to make a living somehow, that’s a topic for another day but I’d encourage you to consider universal basic income. (And read Bregman’s book! It’s fantastic).
For more thoughts on work and careers, follow me here on Medium and on TikTok @neets_a_job. I also offer one-on-one career consulting at https://anitaramaswamy.com/career.