This week Google founders made the shocking suggestion that we ought to move away from the 40 work week. As odd as their suggestion may sound, we ought to consider their two main points in favor of the suggestion. Their argument is simple. Obviously, people’s lives might be better if less of it were devoted to the daily grind. Combine that with the fact that they think we don’t need everyone to be working 40 hours a week because of our ability to automate tasks that once required human labor, and you get a reason to rethink the 40-hour work week.
Even if you think they’re wrong about that second claim, it’s not difficult to imagine that we may rapidly approach a time when it is clearly true that we don’t need everyone to be working a full-time job. Some predict that by the end of the 21st century an almost fully-automated economy would leave us with next to no human labor need in three key sectors, agriculture, manufacturing, and services.
There’s something idyllic about the thought of a world where everyone is more free to pursue projects that they are truly passionate about, and many speculate that great advances in civilization happen when more people have time to pursue what interests them. Major technological advances that reduce need for human labor are often followed by periods of exciting flourishing in art, music, and literature.
However, this is also the stuff that dystopian futures are made of. We should be on the look out for warning signs and start thinking creatively, now, about how how a post-work society should be structured. If there were a massive decrease in labor demand, we’d likely see massive unemployment. It would likely require a radical rethinking about how we structure our economy, and it’s easy to imagine there will be contention about what to do.
I can imagine that massive expansions of welfare (or some basic income guarantee) will be proposed and resisted by persons who mistakenly think that the unemployment rate is due largely to either a failing economy or a lazy workforce (or both). We also might see incarceration increase as many have speculated that governments implicitly rely on incarceration as a way to mange labor surplus. We should be on guard, because a massive labor surplus caused by technological advance and the potential negative social consequences would be an economic problem that may not be easily remedied via some of our the traditional go-to strategies in times of economic crisis or unemployment. The solution won’t necessarily be to create more full-time jobs. The solution may end up being more radical, and it may require an overhaul, as the Google co-founders suggest, in the way we think about the 40-hour work week.