What Happened to the Keynesian Dream of a 15-Hour Workweek?

Now a famous economist, Thomas Piketty (along with co-researcher Emmanuel Saez) wrote Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), contending that capitalism has within it the germinating seeds of ever-growing inequality. That is what his longitudinal study of masses of data proved conclusively.

Yet millions of alarm bells still sound in the wee hours each Monday morning, as people hit their snooze buttons, hoping for a moment’s rest before the inevitable rush to the office. Their weekend is over. Their fun is over, and work beckons. Marching along like ants going to their own funeral, masses of people will soon swarm the country’s transportation systems, surrounded with others like them.

And for what? Wage-buying power hasn’t changed in decades. Trends in wealth show that the lower 60 percent of the population have seen a net worth decline. Meanwhile, the majority of our lives are spent working. The weekend leaves barely enough time for recovery, laundry and if we’re lucky, a smidgen of fun, before returning to the tedium of the five-day workweek.

But is this weekly misery necessary?

In the U.S., the five-day workweek was first introduced in a New England mill in 1908. Before this, Saturdays were a half-day and Sunday was a holiday. It was not expected that humans would still be doing this a century later. Economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 predicted that the workweek would be reduced to 15 hours within a couple of generations due to advancements in technology. In 2017, historian Rutger Bregman put forward its feasibility by 2030 in his best seller, Utopia for Realists. A Senate subcommittee in 1965 also predicted we would be working 14-hour weeks by the year 2000.

More recently, companies have started to study whether there are benefits to a four-day workweek. Microsoft Japan recently reported the results of one such study. The company had employees work four days while receiving five-day pay, despite the reduced hours. The results were striking — a whopping 40 percent increase in productivity. The firm also reported increased efficiency in several areas, including lower electricity and paper usage.

In 2018, a New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, experimented with a four-day workweek with five-day pay. It resulted in a 20 percent increase in productivity despite a 32-hour workweek, while employees experienced a 45 percent improvement in work-life balance. The company has now made the policy permanent.

Another example is a company called Basecamp (formerly known as 37signals), a software company based in Chicago, Illinois. Employees work eight hours a day for four days. CEO Jason Fried states in a New York Times op-ed that, “Better work gets done in four days than in five.”

Despite the jokes about civil servants, they do work, and some very hard. In a study of British civil servants, it was determined that those who worked 55 hours per week showed a comparatively greater cognitive decline some three years later than those working for 40 hours. Imagine what happens to us when we extend this to a lifetime of 40-plus-hour weeks.

The question is, do we need to work even 40 hours per week? If Keynes predicted humans would only need to work 15 hours by this point in time, and there has been an explosion of technological advancements in the last 30 years unimaginable to him, then why are we still 40-hour drones, particularly when the Basecamp example has demonstrated that 32 hours per week is equally (or perhaps more) productive?

Next is the question of whether even 32 hours is necessary. Author David Graeber is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. His 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory describes jobs that appear to have no useful purpose. Graeber defines “bullshit jobs” as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

These are far more common that one might expect. According to Graeber, in a poll of British citizens, 37 percent considered their jobs meaningless. In the Netherlands, 40 percent of respondents believed their job had no reason to exist.

In many of these jobs, employees sit at a desk five days a week with nothing to do. In other jobs, higher management invents tasks for subordinates to complete solely to fill their time. Some jobs exist merely for appearances. Graeber splits them into categories, encompassing jobs with which we are all too familiar. “Flunkies” serve the purpose of making others feel superior (these include doormen, assistants, etc.). “Goons” encompass those such as the public relations professional whose job is to show the public that Oxford is a top school! “Duct tapers” are people in an organization who have to deal with its incompetence. For example, the person who handles lost luggage at an airport or addresses complaints on the phone. “Box tickers” are designed to look busy and push paperwork forward. “Taskmasters” are split into two types — “bullshit generators” who assign more pointless work to subordinates, and those who supervise people who do not need supervision.

For the 60 percent of people who do not have “bullshit jobs,” studies have shown that fewer workdays, even fewer work hours, increases productivity and efficiency, not to mention mental well-being. Companies will be more efficient; workers will work better, be rested and refreshed; and employees will be more likely to stay in their jobs. It’s a plus-sum game if the workweek is cut to four days.

We propose that anything beyond 30 hours should be considered overtime, at time-and-a-half rates. The proposal is still twice Keynes’s 15-hour expectation.

There is another very good reason for this proposal: Since the 1960s, real wages in the U.S. have been stagnant while the real GDP is up over four-fold and the stock market Dow Jones index is up about 10 times, also in real terms, after allowing for inflation. It means stock and asset holders have been getting much, much richer while the working class is getting nowhere.

The top 1 percent have reached the highest wages ever. Cutting the workweek down to 30 hours is one small step toward fairness, because income is only a part of the source of wealth for the 1 percent. It is 25 percent less work and essentially a one-third increase in real wages, making a minor dent in the horrendous inequality in the U.S., which happens to be way ahead in this dubious honor among all developed countries.