Transcribed from the 28 March 2015 episode of This is Hell! Radio and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the full segment:
“We have increased our wealth since the 1930s, but we have been exchanging that wealth for stuff instead of for time.”
Chuck Mertz: Live from London, our correspondent David Skalinder gives us a View from the Agile Left. David dreams of an agile and compelling ideology of the left…but that’s a quiet beat. So he usually reports on the nimble American right, the lumbering institutional left, and the confused frustration of everybody else on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today you’re talking about the laziness of working long hours.
David Skalinder: Yeah, I have this segment I’ve been saving for a rainy day. It’s something that I’ve been seeing a little more often in the mainstream press, and I think it’s interesting to look at it from a couple angles.
My argument is that people should be working less, and I’d like to make that argument from two different points of view. One is a relatively easy argument to make, the argument of a radical economist or a revolutionary—you want to change the world and remake society. That’s the one I’ve been seeing in the popular press. People are writing “think pieces” about how we should be working less.
But the other approach might actually be more interesting: the argument that we should be working less from the perspective of a ruthless, exploitative, profit-maximizing capitalist who doesn’t give a damn about anybody’s happiness or well-being.
So the first: say you are a radical economist, and you’d like to come up with some ideas about how to change the world. Obviously there are a lot of these ideas floating around. One is the idea that we should just be working less.
This isn’t really new. Most of the pieces that I’ve seen mention an essay that John Maynard Keynes wrote in the thirties called Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren. In that essay, he talks about how innovation would continue to improve productivity, and the world was gradually moving towards a place where people have more wealth and work less.
In his lifetime, the working day had dramatically decreased. In the nineteenth century, people were working sixty-hour weeks or more, and they were sending children to work in salt mines and all that. But by the thirties, the labor movement had hammered out some agreements and the workweek had gone down to about forty hours. So Keynes, writing in the thirties, reasoned that this was probably going to continue, and—with a continually improving understanding of finance and technology—by the time his grandchildren were around, which is about now, we’d probably be working about fifteen to twenty hours a week.
That’s a laugh, of course. If anything, the length of the working week has crept upwards, especially in the UK and in the US. I don’t know exactly what the average is now, but a lot of people look dreamily at a forty-hour week. People are working fifty- or sixty- or, in some crazy cases, eighty-five-hour weeks. It’s one of a few things that John Maynard Keynes didn’t predict correctly.
The benefits of working less are extremely clear. There are environmental benefits. If we keep working all the time, we have to keep consuming all the time. Of course we have increased our wealth since the 1930s, but we have been exchanging that wealth for stuff instead of for time. We keep buying more and more stuff, and of course that puts a greater and greater strain on all of our resources, including environmental resources.
There are a lot of societal effects, but fundamentally, it just makes everything better for everyone when people work less. Recently, economists have started to study happiness rather than just wealth. They do surveys and studies with various ways of measuring—and of course some of these measurements we have to be careful with. But they’ve starting trying to measure happiness, and they’re getting a little better at it, and one of the things they’re finding is a negative correlation between how happy you are and how much you work, in particular how many whole days you work. People who work less are much happier, as long as they are able to support themselves and feed themselves and all that.
Of course there’s the joke about how nobody on their deathbed says, “I wish I’d worked more” when you ask if they have any regrets. The thing that people wish for is more time to spend with their family, with loved ones, to do things that they enjoyed, to do things that they loved.
There’s another interesting way to look at this. If we had started, in the sixties, to take the rewards of increasing productivity in the form of time instead of in the form of more stuff, we could now be down to about fifteen-hour workweeks while still maintaining that standard of living. If we had said, “You know what, time is more valuable to us than gadgets, so we’re going to take that dividend, that surplus, in the form of time,” we’d be down to the point that Keynes predicted, and we would be much happier as a society.
Some of the happiest societies in the world are hunter-gatherer societies. And there’s pretty good evidence—both from modern hunter-gatherer societies and from archaeological research—that hunter-gatherers tend to work about fifteen to twenty hours a week. That tends to give them everything they need; food and shelter for themselves and their family.
Then they enjoy the time they have with each other. They sit around the fire and roast potatoes and tell stories about fish, and they socialize with each other, and they have sex with each other, and they do all this stuff that makes people really happy. So their happiness index measures tend to be off the charts.
Now, in case it’s too radical to just suddenly have everybody work fifteen hours a week, there may be a compromise. We could start with thirty or thirty-five hours a week. In the Netherlands, for example, it’s fairly common that if you’re offered a raise, you can choose to forego that raise and simply have Friday afternoon off. And then when you become more senior you can have all of Friday off.
This takes me to the second part of my argument, the capitalist pig part. Again, currently in the US and the UK people tend to be working longer than forty hours a week. The workday has gradually expanded. As people move away from regulated workplaces—no longer work in factories, aren’t unionized, work as freelancers or as “knowledge workers” doing things that are difficult to measure—the length of the workweek has crept up and up and up. Expensive people have also started working more. Bankers work really long hours, apparently.
So every once in a while people look at this and ask, “Gee, is this the most productive way to work?” And then they realize that research has been done on that question for over a hundred years now. There’s a ton of it. Industrial groups and factories do it; the military does it. It’s always the same question: what’s the optimal amount of time for people to be working?
“Ultimately, somebody is being lazy. Somebody is looking at their resources and saying, ‘You know what? We just can’t be bothered to organize this properly.’”
The intuitive answer is that if we make our workers work longer, they will produce more. But clearly that can’t be true forever. Starting at the opposite extreme, if you have a certain amount of work to be done, and you hire forty workers to work one hour a week instead of one worker to work forty hours, you can see that that’s not going to be very efficient. You have to hire new people, you have to train them; people aren’t going to have their heads in the task, and it’ll be a mess. It’s easy to see that if we lower hours by a huge amount and make our workforce bigger, we’re not going to get anything done.
Likewise at the other extreme: if we cut our workforce, cut our costs, and just work everyone 24 hours a day, it’s pretty easy to see that that isn’t going to do much for your output either. You’ll have about one productive day, and then everybody’s going to start getting stupid and start making mistakes. And if you keep on this schedule, after three or four days people will start going insane, and their organs will start failing, and they’ll start damaging machinery, and it’ll be a disaster.
So clearly there’s some midpoint between one hour per week and 24 hours per day. It’s some kind of curve where there’s some maximal point. That alone disproves the intuition that the more you work, the more you will get done. Past a certain point, the more you work, the less you get done.
And research has shown, for a long time, that that point is right around forty hours a week. By going over forty hours a week, you can temporarily increase output slightly, even though your efficiency drops. For example, if I start working ten-hour days instead of eight-hour days, I can increase my total output slightly. And if I go up to sixty hours a week—50% more work—I produce about 25% more output. So I get a little boost in output but I become about half as efficient.
But that’s the first week. After that, the efficiency deficit starts to accumulate. The second week working sixty hours, you’re going to get even less done. You might get an extra 10%. A week after that it’s going to go down again. Most studies that have looked at this have found that after about two months working sixty-hour weeks, you’re basically back down to zero. You accomplish just as much as you would have if you’d just stuck to forty-hour weeks the whole time.
And after that, it often starts to turn negative. People make more mistakes; it raises the risk of catastrophic errors that can totally screw everything up and cost a huge amount of money—and a huge amount of productivity—so you can actually get less done than if you had just stuck to forty hours the whole time.
A lot of famous industrial disasters have happened because of conditions like this. The Exxon Valdez, for example. The military has done studies of troops working under conditions of long hours and low sleep, and has found that eventually they start losing the ability to distinguish targets, so just fire on hospitals without checking, for example. All these kinds of catastrophic errors can completely erase any value you might actually create.
By the way, sleep is another really important part of this argument. If you cut your sleep by even only an hour, it can amount to a productivity loss that’s roughly equivalent to showing up drunk for work. If I’m an exploitative, ruthless capitalist, I don’t want my workers showing up drunk for work. I want to maximize not only their output but their productivity.
I have colleagues who sometimes put in sixty-hour weeks. Sometimes they have no choice. A lot of the time it’s their boss. I don’t hold it against them. I understand that a lot of people are working very long hours, and it’s not their fault. It’s somebody else’s call.
But the weird perspective I’m starting to get, reading through this research, is that working long hours is actually kind of lazy. You get less done. If your job is to go in and work for your ruthless, exploitative, capitalist boss and to produce as much as you possibly can, then the way to do that is to work about forty hours a week, and be able to go home and switch off and rest so that you can come back the next day or the next week and do it again.
Sometimes, of course, you have that emergency and you need that extra 25%, that little boost from temporarily working a little extra. But what we have to bear in mind is that when you crunch, you pay. And you do it fast—the payback is much faster than most people realize. Most people think you can do this for a long time, and it’s just not true.
Ultimately, somebody is being lazy. Whether it’s the boss who orders you to do it, or it’s the school board who orders the day to be structured so teachers don’t have prep time during the school day so have to prep evenings, whatever the case may be: somebody is looking at their resources and saying, “You know what, we just can’t be asked to organize this properly. We can’t be asked to get the resources we need in order to produce as much as we should. We’re just going to fudge it and have people work longer hours, get less done, and cut some corners to make it look good in the end.”
So even if you are a ruthless capitalist, maybe you won’t say we should work fifteen hours a week and spend the rest of our time roasting potatoes with our family, but you definitely shouldn’t be asking anybody to work sixty hours a week more than once in a blue moon. We should be sharply aware that this is a huge cost, not just on our society and our environment and our world and our workers’ well-being and their happiness, but also on the bottom line.
CM: So what happened? Why did we shift from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of stuff?
DS: It’s been a long time since we were actually doing any pursuit of happiness. Capitalism makes it pretty easy to do the pursuit of stuff. It comes pretty naturally. Saying we should try to pursue happiness instead would actually be a pretty radical step away from capitalism. Maybe it’s possible. And it’s only one of many dead-easy arguments. The eternal growth that some people think capitalism requires, too: it’s one of those things you look at and say, “Geez, really? We probably can’t do that. We’re going to run out of stuff to grow with after a while.”
Anyway, I think it’s been a while since the main goal was to maximize happiness. But it could come back.
CM: Live from London, David Skalinder’s View from the Agile Left. Thank you very much, David, I appreciate it.
DS: Have a good one!