For more than 100 years, our workweek kept getting shorter. But since the 1980s, we've started working more and more. Why, exactly, is anybody's guess, because a shorter workweek would solve nearly all the big problems of our day.
By Rutger Bregman, De Correspondent
Had you asked the greatest economist of the 20th century what the biggest challenge of the 21st would be, he wouldn’t have had to think twice.
In the summer of 1930, just as the Great Depression was gathering momentum, the British economist John Maynard Keynes gave a curious lecture in Madrid. He had already bounced some novel ideas off a few of his students at Cambridge and decided to reveal them publicly in a brief talk titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”
In other words, for us.
At the time of his visit, Madrid was a mess. Unemployment was spiraling out of control, fascism was gaining ground, and the Soviet Union was actively recruiting supporters. A few years later, a devastating civil war would break out. How, then, could leisure be the biggest challenge? That summer, Keynes seemed to have landed from a different planet.
“We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism,” he wrote. “It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterized the 19th century is over...” And not without cause. Poverty was rampant, international tensions were running high, and it would take the death machine of World War II to breathe life back into global industry.
Speaking in a city on the precipice of disaster, the British economist hazarded a counter intuitive prediction. By 2030, Keynes said, mankind would be confronted with the greatest challenge it had ever faced: What to do with a sea of spare time. Unless politicians make “disastrous mistakes” (austerity during an economic crisis, for instance), he anticipated that within a century the Western standard of living would have multiplied to at least four times that of 1930.
The conclusion? In 2030, we’ll be working just 15 hours a week.
A future filled with leisure
Keynes was neither the first nor the last to foresee a future awash in leisure. A century and a half earlier, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had already predicted that four hours of work a day would eventually suffice. Beyond that, life would be all “leisure and pleasure.” And Karl Marx similarly looked forward to a day when everyone would have the time “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner [...] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
At around the same time, the father of classical liberalism, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, was arguing that the best use of more wealth was more leisure. Mill opposed the “gospel of work” proclaimed by his great adversary Thomas Carlyle (a great proponent of slavery, too, as it happens), juxtaposing it with his own “gospel of leisure.” According to Mill, technology should be used to curb the workweek as far as possible. “There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress,” he wrote, “as much room for improving the Art of Living.”
Yet the Industrial Revolution, which propelled the 19th century’s explosive economic growth, had brought about the exact opposite of leisure. Where an English farmer in the year 1300 had to work some 1,500 hours a year to make a living, a factory worker in Mill’s era had to put in twice the time simply to survive. In cities like Manchester, a 70-hour workweek – no vacations, no weekends – was the norm, even for children. “What do the poor want with holidays?” an English duchess wondered toward the end of the 19th century. “They ought to work!” Too much free time was simply an invitation to wickedness.
Nevertheless, starting around 1850 some of the prosperity created by the Industrial Revolution began to trickle down to the lower classes. And money is time. In 1855, the stonemasons of Melbourne, Australia, were the first to secure an eight-hour workday. By century’s end, workweeks in some countries had already dipped south of 60 hours. Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw predicted in 1900 that, at this rate, workers in the year 2000 would be clocking just two hours a day.
Employers resisted, naturally. When in 1926 a group of 32 prominent American businessmen were asked how they felt about a shorter workweek, a grand total of two thought the idea had merit. According to the other 30, more free time would only result in higher crime rates, debts, and degeneration. Yet it was none other than Henry Ford – titan of industry, founder of Ford Motor Company, and creator of the Model-T – who, in that same year, became the first to implement a five-day workweek.
People called him crazy. Then they followed in his footsteps.
A dyed-in-the-wool capitalist and the mastermind behind the production line, Henry Ford had discovered that a shorter workweek actually increased productivity among his employees. Leisure time, he observed, was a “cold business fact.” A well-rested worker was a more effective worker. And besides, an employee toiling at a factory from dawn till dusk, with no free time for road trips or joy rides, would never buy one of his cars. As Ford told a journalist, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.”
Within a decade, the skeptics had been won over. The National Association of Manufacturers, which 20 years earlier had been warning that a shorter workweek would ruin the economy, now proudly advertised that the U.S. had the shortest workweek in the world. In their newfound leisure hours, workers were soon driving their Ford cars past NAM billboards that proclaimed, “There is no way like the American way.”
The end of work
All evidence seemed to suggest that the great minds, from Marx to Mill to Keynes to Ford, would be proven right.
In 1933, the U.S. Senate approved legislation introducing a 30-hour workweek. Although the bill languished in the House of Representatives under industry pressure, a shorter workweek remained the labor unions’ top priority. After World War II, leisure time continued its steady rise. In 1956, Vice President Richard Nixon promised Americans that they would only have to work four days a week “in the not too distant future.”
Keynes’ bold prediction had become a truism. In the mid-1960s, a Senate committee report projected that by 2000 the workweek would be down to just 14 hours, with at least seven weeks off a year. The RAND Corporation, an influential think tank, foresaw a future in which just 2% of the population would be able to produce everything society needed. Working would soon be reserved for the elite.
As the 1960s progressed, some thinkers did begin to voice concerns. Pulitzer Prize-winning political scientist Sebastian de Grazia told the Associated Press, “There is reason to fear [...] that free time, forced free time, will bring on the restless tick of boredom, idleness, immorality, and increased personal violence.” And in 1974, the U.S. Interior Department sounded the alarm, declaring that, “Leisure, thought by many to be the epitome of paradise, may well become the most perplexing problem of the future.”
Despite these concerns, however, there was little doubt over the course history would ultimately take. By around 1970, sociologists talked confidently of the imminent “end of work.” Mankind was on the brink of a veritable leisure revolution.
The forgotten dream
Yet history took a different turn.
In the 1980s, workweek reductions came to a grinding halt. Economic growth was translating not into more leisure, but more stuff. In countries like Australia, Austria, Norway, Spain, and England, the workweek stopped shrinking altogether. In the U.S., it actually grew. Seventy years after the country passed the 40-hour workweek into law, three-quarters of the labor force was putting in more than 40 hours a week.
Even citizens of the Netherlands – the nation with the shortest workweek in the world – have felt the steadily increasing weight of work, overtime, care tasks, and education since the 1980s. Three-quarters of the Dutch workforce is feeling overburdened by time pressures, a quarter habitually works overtime, and one in eight is suffering the symptoms of burnout.
What’s more, work and leisure are becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle. A study conducted at the Harvard Business School has shown that, thanks to modern technology, managers and professionals in Europe, Asia, and North America now spend 80–90 hours per week “either working, or ‘monitoring’ work and remaining accessible.” And according to British research, the smartphone has the average employee working 460 more hours per year – nearly three weeks.
It’s safe to say the predictions of the great minds didn’t exactly come true. We are long past due for Keynes’ prophecy. Around the year 2000, countries like France, the Netherlands, and the United States were already five times as wealthy as in 1930. Yet as we hurtle into the 21st century, our biggest challenges are not leisure and boredom, but stress and uncertainty.
The solution to (almost) everything
Recently, a friend asked me: What does working less actually solve?
I’d rather turn the question around: Is there anything that working less does not solve
Stress? Countless studies have shown that people who work less are more satisfied with their lives. In a recent poll conducted among working women, German researchers even quantified the “perfect day.” The largest share of minutes (106) would go toward “intimate relationships.” At the bottom of the list were “work” (36), and “commuting” (33). The researchers dryly noted that, “in order to maximize well-being it is likely that working and consuming (which increases GDP) might play a smaller role in people’s daily activities compared to now.”
Accidents? Overtime is deadly. Long workdays lead to more errors: Tired surgeons are more prone to slip-ups, and soldiers who get too little shuteye are more prone to miss targets. From Chernobyl to the Space Shuttle Challenger, overworked managers often prove to have played a fatal role in disasters. It’s no coincidence that the financial sector, which triggered the biggest disaster of the last decade, is absolutely drowning in overtime.
Climate change? A worldwide shift to a shorter workweek could cut the CO2 emitted this century by half. Countries with a shorter workweek have a smaller ecological footprint. Consuming less starts with working less – or, better yet – with consuming our prosperity in the form of leisure.
Unemployment? Obviously, you can’t simply chop a job up into smaller pieces. The labor market isn’t a game of musical chairs in which anyone can fit into any seat and all we need to do is dole out places. Nevertheless, researchers at the International Labour Organization have concluded that work sharing – in which two part-time employees share a workload traditionally assigned to one full-time worker – went a long way toward resolving the last crisis. Particularly in times of recession with spiking unemployment and production exceeding demand, sharing jobs can help to soften the blow.
Emancipation of women? Countries with short workweeks consistently top gender equality rankings. The central issue is achieving a more equitable distribution of work. Not until men do their fair share of cooking, cleaning, and other domestic labor will women be free to fully participate in the broader economy. In other words, the emancipation of women is a men’s issue. These changes, however, are not only dependent on the choices of individual men; legislation has an important role to play. Nowhere is the time gap between men and women smaller than in Sweden, a country with a truly decent system in place for childcare and paternity leave.
Aging population? An increasing share of the older population wants to continue working even after hitting retirement age. But where thirty somethings are drowning in work, family responsibilities, and mortgages, seniors struggle to get hired, even though working is excellent for their health. So, besides distributing jobs more equally between the sexes, we also have to share them across the generations. Young workers who are just now entering the labor market may well continue working into their eighties. In exchange, they could put in not 40 hours, but perhaps 30 or even 20 per week. “In the 20th century we had a redistribution of wealth,” one leading demographer has observed. “In this century, the great redistribution will be in terms of working hours.”
Inequality? The countries with the biggest disparities in wealth are precisely those with the longest workweeks. While the poor are working longer and longer hours just to get by, the rich are finding it ever more “expensive” to take time off as their hourly rates rise.
In the 19th century, it was typical for wealthy people to flatly refuse to roll up their sleeves. Work was for peasants. The more someone worked, the poorer they were. Since then, social mores have flipped. Nowadays, excessive work and pressure are status symbols. Moaning about too much work is often just a veiled attempt to come across as important and interesting. Time to oneself is sooner equated with unemployment and laziness, certainly in countries where the wealth gap has widened.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the ability to cut a big chunk off our working week. Not only would it make all of society a whole lot healthier, it would also put an end to untold piles of pointless and even downright harmful tasks (a recent poll found that as many as 37% of British workers think they have a “bullshit job”). A universal basic income would be the best way to give everyone the opportunity to do more unpaid but incredibly important work, such as caring for children and the elderly.
The good life
When I told people, in the course of writing my book, that I was addressing the biggest challenge of the century, their interest was immediately piqued. Was I writing on terrorism? Climate change? World War III?
Their disappointment was palpable when I launched into the subject of leisure. “Wouldn’t everybody just be glued to the TV all the time?”
I was reminded of the dour priests and salesmen of the 19th century who believed that the plebs wouldn’t be able to handle getting the vote, or a decent wage, or, least of all, leisure, and who backed the 70-hour workweek as an efficacious instrument in the fight against liquor. But the irony is that it was precisely in overworked, industrialized cities that more and more people sought refuge in the bottle.
Now we’re living in a different era, but the story is the same: In overworked countries like Japan, Turkey, and, of course, the United States, people watch an absurd amount of television. Up to five hours a day in the U.S., which adds up to nine years over a lifetime. American children spend half again as much time in front of the TV as they do at school.
True leisure, however, is neither a luxury nor a vice. It is as vital to our brains as vitamin C is to our bodies. There’s not a person on earth who on their deathbed thinks, “Had I only put in a few more hours at the office or sat in front of the tube some more.”
Sure, swimming in a sea of spare time will not be easy. A 21st-century education should prepare people not only for joining the workforce, but also (and more importantly) for life. “Since men will not be tired in their spare time,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, “they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.”
We can handle the good life, if only we take the time.