COULD we one day work just 15 hours per week?
In 1930, in a speech titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, British economist John Maynard Keynes bucked the economic pessimism of the Great Depression to offer a hopeful view of the future.
Unless policymakers along the way made “disastrous mistakes”, by the year 2030 we would be working just 15 hours per week, according to Keynes, who predicted mankind would instead be facing its greatest ever challenge — what to do with all its free time.
“If you look at the history of the 20th century, up until 1980, almost all the thinkers thought we’d be working less and less,” said Dutch author Rutger Bregman, who champions the idea in his book Utopia for Realists. “They all assumed the great challenge of the future was going to be boredom, with robots taking over jobs.”
Keynes’ prediction was simple extrapolation based on existing trends, and indeed up until the 1980s the work week across the developed world was shrinking. So what happened?
“There are two explanations,” Bregman said. “The first and most popular explanation is consumerism — we keep on buying stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like. There’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t explain it all, because most people today work in the service sector.
“They’re sitting in offices, sending emails to each other all day, or writing reports no one reads, so consumerism can’t be the explanation because most of the products we consumer are manufactured in third-world countries by wage slaves or robots.”
Instead, Bregman blames the rise of “bullshit jobs”.
“The numbers are pretty astonishing,” he said. “Some polls from the UK found 37 per cent of all British workers think their job is completely useless. The easiest way to find out if you have a bullshit job is to go on strike and see what happens.”
In his book, Bregman contrasts the 1968 sanitation worker strike in New York City — which resulted in 10,000 tonnes of garbage piling up on the streets every day until authorities were forced to declare a state of emergency — with Ireland’s bank employee strike two years later.
“That lasted for six months and nothing much happened,” he said. “The economy kept growing, and after six months the bankers came back and said, ‘OK, we’ll get back to work.’”
The Eloi and the Morlocks are the two fictional post-human races in H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine.
By the year AD 802,701, humanity has evolved into two separate species: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi live a banal life of ease on the surface of the Earth while the Morlocks live underground, tending machinery and providing food, clothing, and inventory for the Eloi. The narration suggests that the separation of species may have been the result of a widening split between different social classes. With all their needs and desires perfectly fulfilled, the Eloi have slowly become dissolute and naive.
Wells’ Morlocks evolved from those who do real work in contemporary society: the farmers, teachers, nurses, cops, road-workers and so on, while, presumably, the Eloi came from those with no real need to work, the people with BS jobs.
But wait a minute! The Eloi “have their needs and desires perfectly fulfilled and have slowly become dissolute and naive.” They don’t sound like BS Jobs people to me! BS jobs people are usually busy administrators, consultants, advisers and so on. They are the high-minded people who know what is best for their employer. One example is the recent proliferation of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion officers in Australia. There are now 18,000 of them.
Clearly both J.M.Keynes and H.G.Wells got it badly wrong.