5 Mar 2015

Technology was supposed to bring an end to the 40 hour work week. What happened?

Some French companies just banned employees from responding to work emails after work hours. A city in Sweden is trying out a 30-hour work week in earnest. But while the prospect of working less and enjoying more leisure time used to be the great futuristic promise of midcentury America, today it's little more than a punchline.
Funemployment, staycations; these words have crept into the national lexicon as a cultural coping mechanism. Americans who are actually lucky enough to have a job here in the early 21st century are working their asses off to keep them. So what happened to the push-button world of leisure that Americans of the 1950s and 60s were told was just around the corner? Politics.
Once a key component of the American Dream, George Jetson's button-pushing 3-hour workday has been unceremoniously tossed to the gutter in favor of a half century of increasingly dystopian futures. After World War II, Americans were told that if they worked hard and played by the rules, a technological utopia was just over the horizon. Somewhere along the way, this most American of promises was twisted into a joke about silly, entitled Spaniards and the lazy, crepe-munching French. Progress became a function of working more, not less.
Want to spend more time with your family? Maybe you'd like to take a vacation and show Junior the Baseball Hall of Fame? Move to France, you hippie! I'm sure your kids will love the Baguette Hall of Fame! You'll stop working when you're dead! It's the American way!
Just about every other modern industrialized country has some basic amount of guaranteed vacation time, and many have paid public holidays. The United States has no such laws. The U.S. doesn't even have guarantees of paid time off for sick leave—a good thing to remember the next time a barista with the sniffles hands you your pumpkin-spiced-doodle-frappu-whatsit. Strangely, we forget that paid time off used to be as American as Mickey Mantle riding an eagle through the Grand Canyon with two fistfuls of apple pie.
Americans can't even catch a break when they're bringing new life into the world. Sure, federal law mandates that women be allowed 12 weeks of maternity leave, but that's unpaid leave. We're the only industrialized country where this is the case. In Australia, it's 18 weeks off with guaranteed pay of the federal minimum wage: about $600 per week. In Germany, it's 14 months off with 65% of a worker's regular pay. Why should employers have to foot the bill for maternity leave? They don't. In most countries with paid leave, the government helps pay for it. But even that is a controversial concept here in 21st century America. It was far less controversial as a futuristic ideal 50 years ago.
The productivity and labor experts of the 1960s were certain that tomorrow would become something akin to a worker's paradise, built on the backs of robot labor and the undying worship of efficiency. Today, many new mothers can't even afford to take the legally guaranteed minimum number of weeks off to spend time with their new child. It perversely became un-American—un-conservative even!—to believe that spending time with your family was beneficial for society at large.
It's difficult for those of us here in the year 2014 to appreciate just how certain this exceptional future of leisure was. But the 30-hour work week wasn't just some navel-gazing futurist's dream. It was taken as a given by mainstream prognosticators. With the tremendous advances in automation and robotics happening after World War II, how could you see an abundance of leisure time as anything but inevitable? The media echoed this assurance of inevitability.
In 1967 Walter Cronkite told TV-viewers at home that workers need only wait for the year 2000for their life of leisure to arrive:
Technology is opening a new world of leisure time. One government report projects that by the year 2000, the United States will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations as the rule.
In 1967, some political scientists thought that the work week could be as short as 16 hours by 2020:
Those who hunger for time off from work may take heart from the forecast of political scientist Sebastian de Grazia that the average work week, by the year 2000, will average 31 hours, and perhaps as few as 21. Twenty years later, on-the-job hours may have dwindled to 26, or even 16.
And in 1969, 30-hours was seen as the futuristic norm:

The biggest problem we would face with our newfound lives of leisure? Suicide. In 1959, Parademagazine speculated that people of the future would be driven to bouts of extreme depression from the lack of meaning in their lives. When there's no more need to work, who wants to go on living? The world may become a "paradise" where robots do all the work and we have a guaranteed income, but at what price? Crippling depression, apparently.
Again, this shift—from the inevitability of having "too much" leisure time to the ridicule of anyone who wants to legislate paid time off—finds its roots in the politicization of how we talk about leisure and labor. Mainstream America at midcentury saw the rise of unions as a bare minimum safeguard that would ensure we were heading in the right direction. But even if you hated unions, most people saw a shorter work week as a kind of progress, however it was delivered.
In 1950 the Associated Press insisted that the people reading their article about life in the year 2000 would be able to tell their children about a primitive era when Americans worked more than 20 hours a week.
It's a good bet, too, that by the end of the century many government plans now avoided as forms of socialism will be accepted as commonplace. Who in 1900 thought that by mid-century there would be government-regulated pensions and a work week limited to 40 hours? A minimum wage, child labor curbs and unemployment compensation?

So tell your children not to be surprised if the year 2000 finds 35 or even a 20-hour work week fixed by law.
Sadly, these hopes for the leisure society of tomorrow are relegated to the techno-utopians who are no longer taken seriously in American discourse. And with good reason. Our struggles are less technological than they are political. The American worker today is 25% more productivethan he was in 2000 and 400% more productive than he was in 1950. And yet he's seen no real inflation-adjusted rise in his wages. 


  1. What happened? IMMIGRATION. End immigration and we would have what is described. Notice that countries that restrict immigration have higher standards of living. Japan, Israel, Switzerland.

  2. Technology was supposed to bring an end to the 40 hour work week. What happened?
    Jct: It did. For many, technology did bring an end to their work week.

  3. The Prescient Minority6 March 2015 at 14:15

    Since the mid to late 1800's when the average worker worked 80 hours a week, as productivity increased two things have happened. Either hours were reduced with same pay or the worker received a pay raise with the same number of hours worked. Thereby benefiting from their increased productivity. By the early 1900's the average worker worked 60 hours a week. And then by the mid 1940's-1950's the 40 hour work week was established.

    The experts in the 1960's that predicted the work week would decrease to 30 hours were just extrapolating the data set they were using into the future.

    With the increased productivity over the past 60 years we need to ask two questions. One, Why hasn't the hourly work week decrease? And two, why has average hourly wage decreased when adjusted for inflation since the 1970's?

    Here we go. In the 1980's 2 things happened. First the adoption of IRAs and 401Ks as a worker retirement vehicle instead of a pension. Second was the advent of the "working class republican." So since that time the worker has become a de facto investor with their IRA and 401K plans. And the worker began to support republican policies which in fact did not benefit the worker and at worst was detrimental to workers' quality of life. This sea change in thinking by the worker allowed the following. The benefits from the productivity gains since the 1980's have gone to upper management and the investor in the form of mega bonuses to management and increased dividends and stock buy backs to increase the stock price for the investors.

    The workers has been left to feud for themselves. Some will remember the that in the 1980's the unions which looked out for the workers were busted by Reagan. The worker's thinking has gone so far to the right that today the working class republicans loath unions. Yes unions have their own set of problems but they were a united voice against management's attempts to screw workers.

    So to summarize, the worker since the 1980's have received little if any benefit for their increased productivity. Almost all of the benefit from the productivity gains of the worker has gone to management and the investor. This was easy for the worker to swallow since they thought of themselves as investors with their IRAs and 401Ks.

    In closing I know there are many other factors that are associated with the relative decline in the worker's average hourly wage. Importation of cheap labor is one. I am only addressing the issue brought up by this article. Much of this and much more is covered in a book by Thom Hartmann called "The Crash of 2016."

  4. It´s simple. We call it Capitalism. But people can´t see through the shades.