By now, we should be working less. Today's long working hours are not what some great minds of the past predicted. In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes said the workweek would be 15 hours long in the 21st century, and that our biggest challenge would be finding things to do. He figured that as our material needs were met, we would put aside more time for pleasurable things.
It never happened. Although working hours did decrease through the last century, some time in the 1980s, they started rising again, particularly in the United States. And now, with the line between work and home becoming increasingly blurred, we're more tethered to our jobs than ever. The cell phone maintains a psychological connection to the workplace, even if we're not physically in the workplace, or actually working. One Harvard Business School study found that professionals are "either working, or ‘monitoring’ work and remaining accessible" 80-90 hours a week.
In his terrific book Utopia for Realists, Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman talks about how "working less is the lost dream of the 20th century." It's the one thing that hasn't got appreciably better, even as most other things have. Most of us have food, housing, and modern conveniences, but we don't have a lot of time. As a society, we've effectively taken economic growth and translated it into "more stuff"—higher rates of consumption—rather than more leisure.
But Bregman hasn't given up hope that we'll eventually live out Keynes's promise. Working long hours isn't inevitable or necessary, he says; it's actually a choice we make collectively and enshrine in norms and rules, like how it's cheaper for employers to have one person work overtime hours than having two people work part-time hours. Bregman says we can change how, as a society, we get stuff done, if we do it together, and make it a political priority.
Increasingly, because of automation, we don't need to work so much to produce the things we need. A lot of jobs don't add social value; they shift value around, from one group to another. Bregman compares sanitation workers to stock traders. If the first group doesn't work, we're in trouble: the streets are filled with filth. If the latter group goes on a strike, nothing bad happens. These days, a lot of work falls into the second category, even if it's highly compensated, giving it the appearance of value. It's work designed to pay people a salary, not to actually achieve a social function. Surveys show how workers feel their jobs have no meaning or significance—which, in a sense, they don't.
In a world that’s getting ever richer, where cows produce more milk and robots produce more stuff, there’s more room for friends, family, community service, science, art, sports, and all the other things that make life worthwhile. But there’s also more room for bullshit. As long as we continue to be obsessed with work, work and more work (while useful activities are further automated or outsourced), the number of superfluous jobs will only continue to grow.
Bregman argues in favor of a universal basic income, an idea he's popularized in the Netherlands. Paying everyone a living wage would put a floor under the needy, and allow everyone else to escape the mindless routine of working the whole time, he says. It would reduce stress and workplace accidents, cut carbon emissions, allow parents to spend more time parenting, and lessen the domestic burden on women, who still do the lion's share of housework. It might also reduce inequality: income gaps have grown most in countries where working hours are longest.
We can pay for a basic income by doing away with the old welfare state, which leads people into dependency and indolence. Bregman calls the current public assistance system a "grotesque pact between right and left" where the right worries about people not working and the left doesn't trust people to make their own economic decisions.
"We can get rid of the whole bureaucratic welfare rigmarole and registration system designed to force assistance recipients into low-productivity jobs at any cost, and we can chuck the maze of tax credits and deductions too," Bregman says. "Any further necessary funds can be raised by taxing assets, waste, raw materials, and consumption." He supports a financial transaction tax, which apart from raising revenue, would encourage people to get out of finance and doing something beneficial.
Bregman says we need to get beyond the idea of work, and being under pressure, as status symbols. We have it backwards when we think working long hours makes us interesting people while having time to oneself means we're indulgent and lazy. He says we need to rid ourselves of old-fashioned notions of economic progress and instead measure our success by different metrics, like whether we're happy or healthy.
Lest there be any misunderstanding: it is the miracle of capitalism that opened the gates to the Land of Plenty. But progress has now become synonymous with economic prosperity. The 21st century will challenge us to find other ways of boosting our quality of life. And though it’s not how we’ve been brought up, we have to start looking to politics again to shape a new utopia.
Our obsession with economic growth is a relatively new thing. Before the 1950s, people didn't talk about the economy as a separate entity from society (as in, "we need to get the economy to grow"). Gross domestic product has become such a central focus only since WW2, and mostly because it's a useful yardstick rather than an accurate one. The trouble is it measures all the bad things (wars, natural disasters) as well as the good (sales of ice cream and books), and that it fails to measure lots of important things, like the unpaid work women do caring for children or elderly parents (it's not a coincidence that GDP was a measure invented and perpetuated by men).
Of course, moving beyond work means creating a different type of economy, and giving up certain notions of rewarding people only when they "deserve" it. But then the idea of "deserving" a decent standard of living in the 21st century is a somewhat curious one anyway. As a society, we can do better.
"See [a basic income] as a dividend on progress, made possible by the blood, sweat, and tears of past generations," Bregman says. "In the end, only a fraction of our prosperity is due to our own exertions. We, the inhabitants of the Land of Plenty, are rich thanks to the institutions, the knowledge, and the social capital amassed for us by our forebears. This wealth belongs to us all. And a basic income allows all of us to share it."