Why Don’t We Work Less?

workers working
(Getty Images/Oli Scarff)

At a recent conference in Detroit, billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the online marketplace Alibaba, told CNBC that, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, people will soon work less.

“I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week,” Ma said. “My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy.”

People have been making this prediction for generations. Economist John Maynard Keynes posited, in an essay published a year after the 1929 Wall Street crash, that his grandchildren would work 15-hour weeks, with five-day weekends. In 2015, NPR caught up with some of his descendants and discovered Keynes — who, according to his grand-nephew died “from working too hard” — was wrong. His grand-nephew reported working over 100 hours a week as a professor, and his grand-niece, a self-employed psychotherapist, said she has to write in her agenda “not working” to remind herself to take breaks.

NPR host David Kestenbaum cites Harvard economist Richard Freeman, who believes Keynes underestimated “the human desire to compete.”

KESTENBAUM: In fact, he says, earning more money can make it harder to take time off. If someone is paid $200 an hour, do you really want to leave early and go to the beach? You’ll be sitting there on your towel, reading a novel, thinking, is this really worth $200 an hour ’cause you could be back at the office. The better you are at your job, the harder it can be to not do it. It’s worth pointing out that Keynes himself seemed to have trouble following his own advice.

Others have made the case that the primary factor preventing humans from working less is our own resistance to doing so. A recent survey found that more than half of employed Americans ended 2016 with unused vacation days — “a perennial story,” according to Fortune. As Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic in 2015:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Bloomberg, Ladders and Marketwatch all noted that the primary reasons people give for not using vacation days is “fear” — fear of falling behind, fear of being seen as unnecessary, fear that no one else can take care of their responsibilities in their absence. (For what it’s worth, Ladders also reported that people who take vacation are “far more likely” to get a raise.)

James Livingston, a Rutgers professor and one of the foremost advocates against our current American work ethic, wrote in an essay for Aeon last year that we’ve been led to believe “even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives.” But this belief has already been proven wrong, he writes:

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

Livingston points out that many working Americans don’t earn a livable wage, and asks, “What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?”

Miya Tokumitsu referenced Livington’s work and that of Elizabeth Anderson, another proponent of changing our relationship to work, when she interrogated a similar question in a piece for The New Republic earlier this yearAnderson, a University of Michigan philosophy professor, wrote a book on “how the discipline of work has itself become a form of tyranny, documenting the expansive power that firms now wield over their employees in everything from how they dress to what they tweet.” Tokumitsu and her supporting academics argue that we are not truly choosing not to work less; that perception is a delusion. She writes:

Livingston’s vision is the more radical of the two; his book is a wide-ranging polemic that frequently delivers the refrain “Fuck work.” But in original ways, both books make a powerful claim: that our lives today are ruled, above all, by work. We can try to convince ourselves that we are free, but as long as we must submit to the increasing authority of our employers and the labor market, we are not. We therefore fancy that we want to work, that work grounds our character, that markets encompass the possible. We are unable to imagine what a full life could be, much less to live one. Even more radically, both books highlight the dramatic and alarming changes that work has undergone over the past century—insisting that, in often unseen ways, the changing nature of work threatens the fundamental ideals of democracy: equality and freedom.

Today’s tech world is inextricably linked to the Protestant-ethic-on-steroids ethos that Livingston et al lament. As Nitasha Tiku wrote for Wired earlier this month, “the fetishization of hours clocked in the office is nothing new” is de rigeur for Silicon Valley — so much so, that when one tech investor dared to tweet about work-life balance, he was met with “a venture capitalist pile-on.” The backlash was not necessarily even directed at him, but appeared fueled by a panic at the thought that life could ever be more valuable than work. As Tiku wrote:

Work ethic is a perennial topic in the tech industry, which has its own blinkered take on the American dream of bootstrapped socioeconomic mobility. Parables of extreme devotion—like the story of Elon Musk sleeping on a bean bag next to his desk at night in order to get his online city guides startup off the ground or the story about Elon Musk keeping a sleeping bag near Tesla’s production line—are recited faithfully by entrepreneur acolytes and established VCs alike.

Ma, in his CNBC interview, allows that artificial intelligence is a double-edged sword. Advances in technology have always been this two-sided coin, one side allowing us to be smarter, faster and better; the other making us obsolete. See Thompson in The Atlantic, again:

This fear is not new. The hope that machines might free us from toil has always been intertwined with the fear that they will rob us of our agency. In the midst of the Great Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes forecast that technological progress might allow a 15-hour workweek, and abundant leisure, by 2030. But around the same time, President Herbert Hoover received a letter warning that industrial technology was a “Frankenstein monster” that threatened to upend manufacturing, “devouring our civilization.” (The letter came from the mayor of Palo Alto, of all places.) In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “If men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work.” But two years later, a committee of scientists and social activists sent an open letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson arguing that “the cybernation revolution” would create “a separate nation of the poor, the unskilled, the jobless,” who would be unable either to find work or to afford life’s necessities.

Ma also noted that the the first two world wars were preceded by revolutions in technology, and predicted we may be on the cusp of a third — just a thing to consider if you’re going to root for his prophecies to come true.

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