In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that increasing automation and productivity would bring about a 15-hour working week by the time his grandchildren were working. Clearly, that hasn’t happened, with around a 40-hour working week still the standard after decades. Living standards have improved, but productivity hasn’t reduced how long we work at all. Even high net worth individuals like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or our founder Tej Kohli still work around the clock – their wealth and high incomes hasn’t led automatically to a reduction in working hours.
So there’s an impulse to be cautious in making predictions about how the working week will develop – if Keynes couldn’t get it right, it’s tempting for us to remain silent. But there have been indications that 2017 will hold some interesting developments for how much we work, and they’re worth discussing.
Some countries and companies have already instituted a shorter working week. Many Swedish workplaces, including car centres and hospitals, started implementing a six-hour day towards the end of 2016, and it seems to have been a success. A Toyota factory outside Gothenburg had already instituted the change thirteen years ago, and the factory claims increased profits, lower turnover and higher employee satisfaction. The fact that, after decades of predictions, there really has been a high-profile and successful reduction in the working week in a developed Western country shows that Keynes’ predictions may finally be becoming true.
Or just look at the rise of Donald Trump. Whatever you think of the man, his economic policies are clear responses to increased automation. Trump was elected on the back of Rust Belt voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, voters who had been left behind by growing automation, and on the basis of a pledge to restore lost manufacturing jobs, jobs which have been lost to machines. But if automation means that there just isn’t the demand to work a full eight-hour a day job doing that kind of manufacturing work, how do you bring back those industrial jobs? How do you reconcile increased productivity with responding to the needs of the unemployed and the left behind?
Trump isn’t saying that we should reduce the working week. But the obvious response to the problems which led to his being elected, the problems of increased automation, is that of Keynes – reduce the hours we’re expected to work, making increased productivity an asset instead of a problem. And since the issue of automation has been brought to the fore by the Trump campaign, it’s only a matter of time before the Keynesian solution becomes a part of the common parlance in our political discourse.
It may have taken a few decades longer than he expected, but Keynes may yet be proved right. A shorter working week will increase employee happiness, giving us all the chance to explore our own interests outside of work, and it could even improve employment. So as we move on into 2017, let’s pay attention to what happens to working hours – there may be signs that we’re about to see a very dramatic change in how we work.