Posted by News Express | 12 March 2018 | 18,383 times
Is there anything that working less does not solve?
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, 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 entitled “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 characterised the 19th century is over…” And not without a 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 counterintuitive 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.
His 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, a United States of 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, criticise 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), juxtaposing it with his own “gospel of leisure.” According to Mill, technology should be used to curb the work-week 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, towards 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, work-weeks 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 work-week.
People called him crazy, but followed his footsteps
A dyed-in-the-wool capitalist and the mastermind of the production line, Henry Ford, had discovered that a shorter work-week 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 sceptics had been won over. The National Association of Manufacturers, which 20 years earlier had been warning that a shorter work-week would ruin the economy, now proudly advertised that the US had the shortest work-week 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; Keynes to Ford, would be proven right.
In 1933, the US 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 labour 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 work-week 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 per cent 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 US 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.
History took a different turn
In the 1980s, work-week 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 work-week stopped shrinking altogether. In the US, it actually grew. Seventy years after the country passed the 40-hour work-week into law, three-quarters of the labour 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.
We would be continuing this discourse in the next article.
•Lawrence Chukwuemeka Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via email@example.com (07066375847).
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