keynes, capitalism, and the 15 hour work week

On the evolution of jobs in the industrialized world over the past century.

We do different jobs than we would have done a century ago:

At the same time [over the past century, wherein we saw a reduction in farm and domestic servant jobs], “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.”

So more automation and efficiency means less toiling in the fields, and more leisure time, right?

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector.

The writer cites administration, law, human resources, among other job roles that have grown in popularity.

He calls these “bull shit jobs”:

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.

The writer’s reasoning for this socio-economic organization:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger….

At the end, the author asks why we’re not working 3-4 hour days. Earlier in the post, he quotes a prediction by Keynes who, earlier last century, he predicted just that.

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week.

That’s the gist of it, but feel free to read it yourself and digest. My thought: the writer is wrong on many points, and so was Keynes on his prediction (assuming that was his prediction, and assuming that’s really what he meant). The writer does make some good points–consumerism does drive economic activity and in many ways compels us to work more in order to attain income to buy more. But the ranting about the ruling oligarchs controlling us doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Consumerism aside, why not a 15-hour work week? The reason is that it would lead to dissatisfaction among a lot of people, even many people who dislike their jobs, and substantially among the ranks of people who feel enjoyment and stimulation from their jobs. Go to work for just a few hours, and then watch television all day? That would very quickly get boring for me and most others, I suspect.

The forty hour “full time” work week is a standard in the United States. Other nations have similar standards, used to prevent employers from over-working employees. Many professional job roles are “exempt,” meaning that workers won’t get overtime for extra hours worked. And yet many workers do work extra time regardless. Many companies make the work experience reciprocal, such that putting in some extra time will be rewarded later on. The good companies do that, at least. And if you don’t like your employer, finding greener pastures is always a reasonable recourse. That competition forces companies to be more worker-friendly and provide meaningful and interesting work. (It doesn’t always happen, but the incentives are in place.)

Not all jobs seem useful and not all of them are, as the author correctly points out. What is the point of having a team of corporate lawyers and tax attorneys? These jobs are necessary for structural reasons, and if we don’t like it, then there are ways of dealing with it, though they are slow moving and, frankly, not guaranteed to transpire. Politicians can cut regulatory red tape; judges can throw out costly and absurd law suits; society itself can evolve so as to share similar values and uniformly follow implied social rules.

In other words, many jobs are due to factors like regulatory policy and civil liability. We have massive overhead in some industries due to these factors, and as such, we require massive human capital to craft corporate policy and processes around this context. Even society itself contributes to this. We arguably live in a society where people are all too happy to resort to expensive formal channels of dispute resolution, such as litigation. This is expensive and, more importantly, very risky. A typical lawsuit might cost twenty thousand dollars (rough number for argument’s sake), but what if the judge awards the plaintiff millions of dollars? This is a massive risk for businesses (and individuals, in some cases). Many independent actors would need to change for this situation to reverse itself. Until that time, if it ever were to happen, we have to maintain armies of lawyers.

The list goes on. Some software companies employ nearly as many HR workers as software engineers. Corporate overhead, regulation, and liability all play into this. This isn’t the result of corporate oligarchs as the author implies, but political leaders at various levels, the judiciary, and society itself.

Coming back to that 15-hour work week though, and in the ideal scenario where all jobs are “economically productive,” why still would it not make economic sense to have such a schedule? Imagine that I’m working on a cool product and looking forward to seeing it come to fruition. But I’m only working 15 hours a week. This means that I have to wait much longer to ever bring this product to market. No worries, you might think. I can hand off part of the work to others. But as someone involved in the creative foundation of a product, “handing off” work and knowledge of a complex system is not feasible and is the essence of inefficiency. It would take 15 hours just to hand off the mental landscape I constructed for myself to another person. And that person might do 15 hours worth of work that I would then need to reverse engineer in order to build atop his work. It would make far more sense if I just did this work myself, following my own train of thought on my section of the project, and then, to my excitement, delivered the product earlier to market.

For menial jobs, the above doesn’t make much sense, since there is no sustained “vision” or mental landscape associated with mindless widget assembly. But creative jobs are the ones we should be creating anyway, is it not?

Psychologically, economically, and pragmatically, the 3-4 hour work week makes little sense. I’d hate to live in a system where this was the norm. It would neither provide efficiency or purpose to the employed.

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