In 1930, John Maynard Keynes posed a question about the economic future of society: “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be, a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?”
To Keynes, the answer was clear: the rapid accumulation of capital, combined with technological advances, had already, by his estimates, improved the average quality of life in the West fourfold since the Industrial Revolution, and there was no reason why that trend shouldn’t continue. “I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day,” he wrote.
The potent combination of technology and capital would render most material-based concerns irrelevant; people would no longer have to worry about basic problems of survival. One result would be an unprecedented abundance of leisure time, which would present a new problem for the average human: “How to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
In some sense, Keynes’s insight was accurate. Work hours declined during the Great Depression, and they have since then continued to decline in most countries around the world. In 1935, the International Labour Organization (now part of the United Nations) set a forty-hour week for its member nations; though many nations took time to meet that standard, the forty-hour work week was widespread by the nineties.
Today, in some countries, the number is even lower: a 1998 law reduced the French work week from thirty-nine to thirty-five hours, with no corresponding pay cut for workers. According to the latest estimates by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.), the average work week in twenty-four of its thirty-two member nations declined from 2011 to 2012, to just under thirty-four hours a week.
But the reality is more complicated that these numbers suggest. In the United States, where work hours have bucked the O.E.C.D. trend and have risen, we don’t seem any closer to lives of leisure or to the problem of too much free time.
Ask any investment banker, chef, lawyer, or taxi driver if he works the standard number of hours, and he’ll probably laugh in your face. Recent efforts to limit the hours of medical residents, who often work for more than twenty-four hours straight, were met with controversy and blowback; a new rule, established in 2003, limited their work weeks to eighty hours, but supervisors have often found creative ways to circumvent it.
On weekends and evenings, vacations and commutes, family events and meals, we are increasingly tethered to the office, increasingly able—and expected—to respond immediately to e-mails, requests, and queries. Free time is proving to be an ever-more elusive concept: the same technology that Keynes predicted would free us from work has instead brought work into our leisure time.
This trend is not only undesirable but may also prove unsustainable if we want to maintain a productive, creative, and happy society. That, at least, is the argument which was made recently by the Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim. During a talk at a conference in Paraguay two weeks ago, Slim proposed that the standard work schedule worldwide should be trimmed to three days a week. The current arrangement, he pointed out, was developed when life expectancy was lower and the world was, as a whole, poorer.
Now, with people living longer and the structure of society shifting accordingly, a four-day weekend would improve quality of life, promote the development of other occupations, and healthier and more productive employees. Slim’s proposal included two important caveats: employees would work longer hours each day, and would continue to work into their seventies. (At Slim’s own company, Telmex, he is allowing workers past retirement age to keep working four-day weeks, at full salary.)
Slim’s three-day work week was greeted with skepticism, but he is far from the first executive to criticize the structure of our working lives. In 1926, when six-day work weeks were the norm, Henry Ford proposed a five-day week: workers would receive the same pay and have their weekends free. Ford didn’t take the change as a matter of faith; he tested worker productivity beforehand.
“Now we know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six,” he wrote. “And we shall probably get a greater, for the pressure will bring better methods.” Ford saw the five-day week as just one step in ongoing efforts to reduce working hours. “The five day week is not the ultimate, and neither is the eight hour day,” he wrote. “It is enough to manage what we are equipped to manage and to let the future take care of itself. It will anyway. That is its habit.”
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