The 4-hour workday vs. no work at all: Utopian and dystopian visions of laboring

Could we be more creative and productive by working only four hours a day? If the work habits of folks like Charles Darwin are any indication, the answer may be a resounding “yes.”

In a feature article for The Week, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016), looks at the work habits of highly accomplished creative people through history and finds that they:

…all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

As for Darwin specifically, he authored 19 books, including the paradigm-making Origin of Species. Once a workaholic, he settled on a daily schedule that looked something like this, as Pang writes:

  • “After his morning walk and breakfast, Charles Darwin was in his study by 8 a.m. and worked a steady hour and a half.”
  • “At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters.”
  • “At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary or greenhouse to conduct experiments.”
  • “By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.”
  • “When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters.”
  • “At 3 p.m. he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife and family for dinner.”

So, if you want to know how to write 19 books and fundamentally change the way we think about human evolution, you might start by cutting back on the work hours! Alright, maybe it’s not that simple — I’m guessing that Darwin’s mind was hard at work even during his “down time.” In any event, Pang’s full article is a thought-provoking read and challenges the notion that a constant nose to the grindstone makes us more creative.

When technology eliminates jobs

The idea of the four-hour workday may be enormously appealing to those who enjoy flexibility in their work schedules and who are involved in creative endeavors that generate income based on the result rather than the time clocked in on a job. But what about the vast majority of workers whose livelihoods require being present on the job for x hours a day? What if their work literally disappears? Yuval Noah Harari writes for The Guardian:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs.

 . . . The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

If you want a prime example of how this is already occurring, consider corporate responses to fast-food workers who are advocating for a living wage: These workers are at risk of being replaced by robots. As Kate Taylor reports for Business Insider:

“It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging french fries,” former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi said in an interview on Tuesday on the Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria.” “It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”

According to Rensi, rising labor costs are forcing chains to cut entry-level jobs and replace workers with machines. Currently, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are rolling out kiosks across the US, in part because of the rising cost of labor.

Long hours by choice…or not

Here in America, we love to extol the virtues of the work ethic, and for better or worse, it shows. For example, Ben Steverman reported for Bloomberg last fall on a new study by economists Alexander Bick (Arizona State U), Bettina Bruggemann (McMaster U), and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln (Goethe U) shows that Americans put in some of the longest work hours per week compared to their European peers:

A new study tries to measure precisely how much more Americans work than Europeans do overall. The answer: The average person in Europe works 19 percent less than the average person in the U.S. That’s about 258 fewer hours per year, or about an hour less each weekday. Another way to look at it: U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans.

This study adds to the continuous string of research studies documenting the long work hours put in by Americans, including a 1997 International Labour Organization report showing that “US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations.”

Of course, many of those working long hours aren’t doing so by choice. As has been reported over and again in the news media, the overall state of the American economy and labor market is such that millions of workers have been compelled to take two or three lower-paying, part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.

I think we’re in quite a pickle here. Overwork — by choice or challenging circumstance — is sapping creativity, health, and overall well-being. Technology — a term that instantly causes some people to experience paroxysms of awe and wonder — threatens to make a lot of people unemployable. At the very top, a small number of people (think the McDonald’s ex-CEO in Taylor’s article) stand to grow increasingly wealthy from this dynamic.

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