We actually did get the four-hour workday

Day two of our Rethink the Future Summit.

Welcome to the second day of Rethink the Future, a virtual launch summit we’re hosting March 6th-10th, 2023.

Today we’re speaking with

, author of , who’s speaking about the history, present, and future of work and leisure. We’ll discuss how work has changed over the last 200 years, the decline in working hours and the rise of leisure hours, the shift from blue-collar to white-collar work, the dream of liking what you do, how much we work today, and where we go from here.

Click the above video to watch or read the complete transcript below.

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: So, you wrote an article about the 20-hour work week. Was it the 20-hour workweek?

: The interesting thing is that there were a whole bunch of different predictions. And everybody had slightly different things. I think the most famous one is by John Maynard Keynes, who talked about a 15-hour workweek. Now, it turns out, if you read his essay carefully, he wasn't literally predicting a 15-hour work week. In fact, he mentioned 15 hours of work in the context of it being a minimum amount of work that we would need, as human beings, to be satisfied, that we had something useful to do with our lives. So if you read between the lines, he seemed to be suggesting that we would—for bare minimum economic subsistence—we would actually need less than 15 hours of work. Maybe we wouldn't even need to work at all, or very few people would need to work. But he thought, ok, 15 hours would serve our psychological need for work.

Lots of other people around this time, especially around the 1920s and 1930s, were talking about maybe 20 hours (or even less) being sufficient to kind of provide a minimum living standard for people. I dug into a bunch of these predictions, another famous one was by Charles Steinmetz. Steinmetz is not so well known today, but 100 years ago or so he was very well known as this famous electrical engineer who worked at General Electric and places like that and did a lot for the industry of the day. He would have been, I don't know what the equivalent would be today, of some sort of famous engineer or technical inventor type. And he was predicting something about maybe a four-hour workday. So I guess that would be about half, I've seen two hours, I've seen 16 hours a week.

Buckminster Fuller, the famous architect, also had a prediction along those lines. And really what was going on was people were just excited about a few things. They were excited about the potential of electricity, one technology that had been invented decades earlier in the 1880s in terms of electric light and power. But in the 20s, it was just hitting the point where it was getting built out to the whole nation. Even rural areas were starting to get electricity. And it was also starting to revolutionize factories and the way the factories were built and organized, and were starting to see some massive productivity improvements from that.

The other thing that was going on was factories were getting improved and reorganized in other ways. Circa 1913, Henry Ford and his team at Ford Motor Company basically invented the modern assembly line. And so you got this more efficient means of manufacturing that allowed him to cut the price of his automobiles down to the point where a working man could afford them. His own workmen on his line could afford to buy his own automobiles.

And then you got folks like Frederick Taylor, who is famous for “scientific management,” where he wanted to go and sort of rationalize and bring everything under careful planning. Not have everything be done in a sort of chaotic, haphazard way, as it often was in factories before him. And I'm not totally sure how well Taylor succeeded, I think a lot of what he wanted to do maybe was a little too overly rationalistic. And kind of top-down. And maybe he tried to impose too much structure. Certainly he didn't bring the workers along. The workers generally revolted when the management tried to bring in so-called scientific management.

But if you step away from Taylor himself, and maybe what went wrong with that particular thing, factories were getting better organized at the time. And it was just clear to a lot of people there's so much potential for more efficiency. Ultimately, more labor productivity. Which means that the average person creates more with an hour of work. Which ultimately means that they can get paid more in terms of a real wage. So then, what do you do if you can get paid more in terms of what your wages can buy for you? What do you do if you can work more?

Say that your labor productivity doubles. Well, there are a number of options, right? One option is you could keep working the same amount and just earn twice as much and consume twice as much. Another option is you could cut your working hours in half and consume the same amount. So keep your living standard the same, but have half your working time back as leisure. That's what people were thinking about when they talked about the 20-hour workweek. Or you could do something in between, right? And very often we choose to do something in between. One of the things that I think happened, one of the reasons why I think we didn't get the 20-hour workweek, is that a lot of people chose to do something in between. It was actually not atypical to work 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks, six days a week, 12-to-14 hours a day. This was very common in factories and other industrial jobs.

Elle: In 1870-1900, you mean?

Jason: Yeah. Part of what happened was, we did actually reduce that. We did cut that maybe in half, from the really bad 80-hour weeks down to 40-hour weeks. In some places in Europe the average is even lower than 40 right now. The other thing that happened was, we raised our standard of living. Part of what was going on around this time was not only were we getting more productive, but what were we doing with all that extra productivity? We were using it to create all kinds of new stuff, things that people didn't have just decades before. Electricity in the home and light bulbs, refrigerators, automobiles, other home appliances like vacuums and washing machines and dishwashers. And then new consumer products that were coming out like televisions and radios. And then later air conditioning and personal computers. We extended our money and other things too, like airplane flights. The whole commercial air industry and travel and vacations. It turns out that even if you have extra hours of leisure, you need to spend more money in order to make the most of that leisure.

So now what do we do? We buy video games and we buy movies and music. We pay for streaming services. We buy sporting equipment. We pay for the gym to go exercise. We pay for vacations, flying and staying in hotels and eating out and all those things. So it turns out, we wanted to work some extra, we wanted to take some of our time in increased leisure, and then take some of the money that we're getting with the extra work, the extra productivity, and then use that to spend on the leisure time.

Elle: Yeah, I think that's an interesting phenomenon, the rise of consumerism. Maybe you wouldn't necessarily call it consumerism because it's using your money to enjoy your leisure. That's such an interesting concept. Because I could not work as often and go for a run outside, or I could work more and pay for a membership at the gym. It's interesting.

Jason: Yeah. Not to mention, one of the things that happened in the course of the 20th century is that a lot of jobs got less physical, as we got more and more machines doing labor. A lot of jobs moved to services, they moved to offices. Out of factories and farms and into offices and being clerks and working in a store, those kinds of service and desk jobs. So that's part of what happened. The other part of what happened was even the physical jobs and farms and factories became not manual labor. Farmers are not out there hoeing and tilling the field by hand, at least not so much, they're mostly driving a tractor or something like that. And in the machine, you're not lifting the boxes, maybe you're operating a forklift or that kind of thing. Obviously, still some manual labor but just the proportion of it is way down.

Because of this, a lot more people actually need exercise, deliberate exercise in order to physically stay in shape. It's just one of those trade-offs of the modern world. But you use the term consumerism and I have to admit, I've never 100% understood what consumerism is, or what it's supposed to be. I have the general sense of what people are gesturing at, but it feels like a fake term to me. We've always been consumers, every living organism is a consumer. Humans, just like all animals, have always been consumers. It's just the way it used to be, we didn't consume very much. Now we're more productive, we produce more, we consume more, we're just doing the same thing, only more and better. In a certain sense, consumption has become a major part of our lives in a way that it wasn't before. It used to be that almost everyone was desperately poor by today's standards. And now most people are not.

The term consumerism gets sort of used as if consumption is something bad. I can understand that, people can get too caught up in things in consumption that doesn't really matter. But I feel like that's such a tiny portion. If you want to tell the story of the last 100, 200 years, people getting wrapped up in consumption that doesn't really matter is such a tiny fraction of the story, 20% of the story. Compared to all of the consumption that really does matter and made people's lives so much better. I'm hesitant to even acknowledge or use the term. I'm a little skeptical of any use of the concept of consumerism.

Elle: That's a good point, the term has largely been co-opted in a negative direction—used in the representation of waste, like consumer waste. Single-use plastics or things that we throw away after six months to a year. This idea that consumption is using the Earth's resources frivolously. But you're right, you can't put that label on all consumption.

Jason: Yeah, you can't put it on most consumption. Any consumption that actually buys us something that we care about, even convenience, or saving small amounts of time, is not a waste. It's used to generate value that is not wasted. It is spent on making our lives better. Are some of those things frivolous? Certainly, but what's the matter with frivolous uses? Tiny conveniences add up. They accumulate over time to be something that is actually really substantial. When you accumulate little 1% and 0.5% improvements and time savings, before you know it you've you've saved half of your time. You've doubled the amount of resources that you now have as an individual to go for the things that you really want and care about. Rather than having to spend time on food prep or meal prep, if that's not what you want to do with your life. Or spend time on commuting, if that's not what you want to do with your life. We just have all these ways now to not have to do those things.

Elle: So are there ways that we can not do work? Our personal lives are very optimized in that way. Because exactly to your point, I can buy a washing machine, and that saves me 10 hours of hand-washing clothes, right? Or I can have a dishwasher, that saves me hand-washing all my dishes. My leisure time that already exists is increasingly used for pure leisure and not to do work for my personal life. But what about for our actual work?

Jason: Again, like a lot of this has already happened. We went from the 60-, 70-, 80-hour work weeks down to 40 hours or less. The people who work more than 40 hours, many of them, though certainly not all, many of them do it because they find their work rewarding. They're driven and they feel that their work is challenging them. It's meaningful, it's engaging, it's even enjoyable in a certain sense. There's some goal that they want to pursue and go after.

We work fewer hours out of the day, we also work fewer days out of the week. I mentioned six-day, six-and-a-half day weeks, were not uncommon. Now, a five-day week is fairly standard. We also work fewer weeks out of the year. We get more vacation and holidays now than we used to. There's this phenomenon of paid vacation, which used to be less prominent. We also work fewer years out of our lives. It used to be that many children had to work because they came from poor families that couldn't afford to send the kids to school and had to send the kids to work to help make ends meet with the family. Now, most kids complete high school or at least they can. High school graduation rates, I don't remember the numbers off the top my head, but just a century or century-and-a-half ago in the US they were maybe 12% or something like that. Now they're up to 80%, something in that ballpark. Many more kids can also go to college. In fact, some people are starting to question whether we're actually over-educating, whether the average person is sort of getting more education than they even really want or need.

The other thing that's happened is we've taken those years of work away at the end of our lives.T here's such a thing as retirement now. It used to be you worked until you dropped or until you were just physically unable to work anymore. Then you had to be supported by family. Now we actually have retirement. When Social Security was first put in place, if I recall this correctly, the retirement age was actually greater than the life expectancy at birth. So your expected time in retirement was actually zero. We kept to the retirement age, or didn't move very much, but life expectancy has been growing and increasing. So the actual number of years that you get to enjoy your retirement have increased. And so someone put all of this together and did a projection. A 20-year-old male, how many hours of the rest of your life would you expect to work versus not? And in the early 20th century, you would expect to work 80% of your remaining hours or waking hours or something like that. And now it's down to like 50%. So again, we actually have worked a lot less.

If you want to work even less, there are ways to do it. Look at the fire movement: financial independence, retire early. These are all just people figuring out how can you really cut down your budget and make smart savings decisions and then retire early. Now you get all those years back. Similarly, you could do it a different way, you could really cut down your budget and then just work part-time. And the flexibility today that we get from remote work and gig work, you can go be a driver for Uber or Lyft or a shopper for Instacart or something like that. The flexibility afforded by those things is giving lots of people the ability to go and work those part-time jobs and actually to work exactly the hours that they want. Usually not just to have leisure time but for something else that's really important to them. Like being a caregiver for a family member, or going to school and getting a degree, or starting a business. I've met multiple Uber and Lyft drivers who've told me that this is how they make cash while they were starting up a video production business or something along those lines. I think we actually have a tremendous amount of flexibility and ability to sort of choose work that fits our lifestyles.

Elle: Yeah, I totally agree. Personally, I was really into the FIRE movement when I was in my 20s. You brought up something interesting, the idea of work as a virtue, something you would want to do that benefits your life to be a part of. I want you to talk more about that because the FIRE movement did make it so that I could work a lot less if I wanted to, but I really enjoy my job. I love it so much. I want you to talk more about this idea, that work is super beneficial to our lives, that we would want to do it in some way.

Jason: Certainly. When you look at the big picture of the story of work and how work has changed over the last few 100 years, one of the big things that jumps out to me is just that there's so much more choice now. There's so many more different kinds of opportunities to do the kind of work that is meaningful and engaging to you. In the Middle Ages, you didn't have a lot of choice. You were probably going to be a farmer because more than half of the workforce was farmers. And if we didn't have half or more of the workforce being farmers, there would literally not be enough food to feed the population. People would starve. And then a lot of the rest went into making very basic necessities, spinning and weaving cloth, basic trades like blacksmithing, and pottery and glassblowing and so forth. Some of those trades, by the way, were hard to get into because there was this guild system that was very restrictive and you had to go through a whole apprenticeship. Very often people would just do what their parents did. Professions would be basically passed down as an inheritance.

Today, there is just an enormous amount of choice. First off, there are more things to do. There are so many jobs today that didn't even exist back then. We've we've made a shift from manual labor to more cognitive jobs. Overall, we've made a shift from more routine jobs where you're doing the same thing over and over, to things that require more creativity and intelligence. In general, we got machines to do the things that are routine jobs. Just think of all the things that exist today that didn't exist just a couple hundred years ago. Fashion designer, voice artist, anything to do with sound recording of any type didn't exist 150 years ago.

Elle: Photography.

Jason: Right. Video game designer, spreadsheet jockey, all of these different things. I think one of the great joys of life, and one of the things that makes life really meaningful, is finding work to do that is deeply meaningful and engaging to you. That you feel challenges you but also is something that you can succeed at, something that you are great at, and that uses talents that come naturally to you. The more varied and sophisticated landscape of jobs that we have out there, the more likely it is you can find the one that fits you perfectly. That you are happy to do the thing that looks like work to everyone else but feels like play to you, that you're just happy to engage in.

Elle: Yeah, totally. The work-as-passion is kind of a new phenomenon but one that we can enjoy today. Probably even more so in the future, I would imagine. Especially as these things become monetizable, like playing video games and having somebody watch you play video games can be a profession.

Jason: Yes. By the way, I think part of the evidence of the rise of leisure is just how much of the economy is now devoted to games and sports and entertainment and recreation and leisure and travel and all that stuff. It's a huge fraction of economics.

Elle: Right? Even in traditional or what you would think of as labor-based jobs. They are higher-paying, higher-skilled, and allow you to have more leisure, so that you are spending more money on these on these leisure activities. My husband works in a so-called blue-collar industry, he works in the refractory industry, which sells equipment for mining, glass, cement, concrete, any kind of high-heat process. You go into a mining facility, it's not people digging, it's engineers operating really sophisticated equipment. And then they might go home and play video games.

There's less focus on the rote, like you were saying. More on, I have the leisure time and I am making more money so I can afford the leisure. I think that's super interesting, especially when you consider leisure industries. How would this affect, for example, in-person work versus remote work? We've talked about office jobs a lot and how that's changed. But there are still educators. I'm in Hawaii right now, there's a lot of people who work in hotels, tourism industry, that's all in-person work. Hospitals, teaching, there are so many places in which the in-person work is still very much a part of it. Do you see more leisure, more income, even in the in-person scenario?

Jason: Yeah, sure. There's this general phenomenon as labor productivity increases, wages increase, even in the fields that have not gotten more productive because of competition. Because people can choose to move across jobs. This usually goes under the funny heading, which is Baumol’s cost disease. Baumol gave this example of the string quartet, where a string quartet playing live music is no more productive than they were in the days of Mozart. It still takes four people an hour to play an hour's worth of string quartets. That hasn't increased. But in terms of a real wage, we pay those musicians today a lot more than they got paid a few hundred years ago. Why? Because if we paid them like we paid them a few hundred years ago, they wouldn't do it. They would go get a different job that actually paid them much better. It’s a little bit like a tide that lifts all the boats. I do think, in general, more productivity in any area of economy often has these sort of spillover effects into the people and the professions who aren't directly impacted by it.

Elle: Okay, so then I'm curious, are you familiar with David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs?

Jason: Not really, I've heard of it, but I haven't dug into his thesis about what exactly are the bullshit jobs. Every time I've heard the term used, I'm sort of skeptical of it. I'm sure there are some bullshit jobs out there, as in jobs that don't really produce anything and probably shouldn't exist and are an artifact of some system. I'm certain there are some bullshit jobs out there, a lot of them. But I also think it's really easy for people to look at jobs they don't understand and call them bullshit when they're actually not.

The number one example of this would be in the financial industry There are some people who think that the entire field of finances is a bullshit industry that's just parasitic. That's absolutely not true. The finance industry as a whole is performing an absolutely essential function in an economy, which is capital allocation. But if you don't understand that, it just seems parasitic.

From a sort of Marxist perspective, people think that managers are just bullshit jobs. The laborers are doing all the work, the managers are just taking the profit and being parasitic. But managers actually perform an absolutely essential function. We have bad managers and the whole company goes to hell, and good managers can can turn one around. So there's an absolutely essential organizational function. A planning function, talent selection and development, all of those things. If you don't understand those functions, then you're just gonna look at managers and say it’s a bullshit job. Just be careful calling a job bullshit if you haven't done it yourself. That's

Elle: I think that's interesting because you basically just defined an essential job in a very different way than Graeber does. In Graber’s mind, the things that are actually essential are producing our food, our shelter, producing all the things humans need to survive. Like, working in HR is not essential in his mindscape. Whereas you're saying working in HR is essential because it's providing a function to a company, and the company provides essentials to a capitalist society, and the capitalistic society is what allows us to work, and what allows us to feed ourselves, and allows us to have leisure. Then the whole cycle continues. Am I getting that right?

Jason: Yeah, it's so bizarre to say something like HR isn't essential. Have you ever worked at a company with a bad HR department? I don't know Graeber very well or his background or anything, but it just makes me wonder has he worked for a company before? If you've ever worked at two different companies, maybe one that had a good HR department, one that had a bad one, you'll know the difference. It's like saying that the concrete foundation of a building isn't essential because it's not literally with the part that your feet are touching. Or the boiler room in a building isn't essential because it's not where you sit and do your work or eat. These things play a function. And even if they're not the thing that you directly interact with, even if their second and third and fourth derivative parts of the structure, they're all part of the structure and they perform a crucial function.

Elle: So do you think that work, as it exists now, is the ideal format? Or do you think there are ways we should change work going forward?

Jason: I think there are almost always ways to improve things. I don't think anything ever reaches a sort of static, ideal endpoint that it'll never progress beyond. I generally have a much more dynamic way of looking at the world. I tend to think of everything as a work in progress. Everything is part of an ongoing process. And generally, things either grow or they die. Stagnation is just sort of a slow form of death. There might be some exceptions to this but my first assumption about everything is it can always be improved in some way, and maybe will be in the future. Certainly, we can keep making work more productive. Certainly we can keep making work safer. And by the way, there’s another thing. We didn't even discuss this but work has gotten safer over the years as well. We can continue to eliminate the parts of jobs that people really don't want to do, we can continue to make work more flexible and convenient. We can continue to invent new types of jobs that are a better fit for people. There are all these ways that work has been improved in the last couple hundred years and I think it can probably continue to improve.

Elle: Yeah, that makes sense. So it's improving in the work structure. Theoretically, a lot of our jobs will be replaced if we follow that same trend of history you just mentioned. And there will be whole new industries that exist in the future that we couldn't even imagine now.

Jason: Yeah, some jobs get replaced outright. Like telephone switchboard operators basically just went away, we totally automated that job. Other jobs have not gone away but they've been transformed in character. We still have accountants, just like we had accountants in the Middle Ages, we had people keeping books. At a certain point we had an actual profession of accounting and we still have that profession. It's possible that will go away in the future. But all of the automation that we've been able to do with it, the invention of spreadsheets and so forth, has not yet replaced people, just sort of transformed their format. We still have people working at the docks where cargo is getting unloaded. It's just that they're not literally unloading the cargo by hand anymore. Maybe they're operating the crane that unloads the containers, or maybe they're driving the trucks around, or they're doing some other function at the port. These things transform, they transform in different ways. And I'm sure that some jobs today will get totally automated away. Some will get new tools that will just change the way that they do. Some will morph into to new, different jobs that didn't didn't exist before. It's hard to predict. But all forms of that will happen.

Elle: I like it. We got a thorough framework of the history and kind of where we could go from here. Are there any other closing thoughts you have for us about the future of work and leisure?

Jason: I’d just like people to pause a moment and appreciate how far we've come. Appreciate that work actually is much better today in so many ways. That it does pay better, that we do work shorter hours, that it is more comfortable and convenient. That it's safer. That it’s, in many ways, more engaging and more fun. And that it’s in many, ways more flexible and convenient. I think if you see that trajectory then you can be optimistic about what we might be able to do to improve work in the future.

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A guest post by
Founder, The Roots of Progress (rootsofprogress.org). I write about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress.
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