Whither the 15-Hour Week: An Inquiry
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes made a bold prediction that the future would see drastically shorter working hours. Keynes predicted that only the most extreme workaholics would work more than fifteen hours a week.
This famously never happened. The financial crisis of 2008 and continued era seemingly causes the fifteen hour week to come up every and now then in liberal and left circles. The lack of a fifteen hour week has been attributed to a rise in to a rise in bullshit jobs in Strike Magazine. Paul Campos theorizes that America’s thrall with makes it hard for the U.S. to achieve a fifteen-hour workweek of increased leisure. This ignores that there is not one place in the world where a fifteen-hour work week is the rule and not the exception especially for any economy that could be considered desirable. The question remains about why didn’t the fifteen-hour work week happen and whether it is even desirable. This is an issue where I agree and disagree with my fellow liberals.
There are a variety of factors and for the most part I am going to talk about work that is done for survival rather than a labor of love even though they can intertwine.
1. The United States still firmly lacks a welfare-state. Our health insurance is still connected to our employers and receiving benefits like health insurance, paid vacation, and sick leave is often predicated on being a full time employee with 40 hours a week. We see more employers doing everything possible to avoid paying these benefits by capping employment at 35-39 hours per a week. However, even robust welfare states often have employees working 35-50 hours a week.
2. Fear of being laid-off and/or denied promotions or wages. The economy is still very anemic to rocky in many quarters and people have not recovered. People are going to want to prove their merit by working harder and longer.
3. Many or most jobs cannot be done on fifteen hours a week. I can seemingly think of many jobs that are impossible to do on fifteen-hours a week unless you significantly increased the number of people working in the field and radically changed compensation structures. I don’t know how someone could be a teacher or doctor on a fifteen hour work week. Would every classroom be given 2-3 teachers who work two or three days a week? I suppose you could be a computer programmer, engineer, or lawyer and work fifteen hours a week but it seems to make no sense at all.
4. A culture that equates working long with working hard and dedication. The United States is not alone in this but we do have a tendency that likes to make a show of long-hours at the workplace.
5. Potentially an innate belief that work should consume at least 35-40 hours of your life a week. This is again something that is very hard to prove and could largely be based on socio-economics and cultural issues. The old protestant work ethic. When I have seen people try and assert this claim on liberal blogs, they tend to get laughed at.
6. People who enjoy their jobs are probably going to want to spend more time doing their jobs and would see fifteen hours as a strange limitation.
7. People who ask about the non-appearance of the fifteen hour work week really don’t care about the fifteen hour work week. I suspect that the fifteen-hour work week really stands as a diving point for broader criticisms of corporate capitalism, “elite” control, and how we live now. The criticism from Strike magazine seems to boarder on a conspiracy theory about how most modern jobs are essentially bullshit designed to prevent us from too much freedom and idle time. I disagree but there is seemingly no way to disprove the point because it involves starting with axioms and tautologies that I find hard to fathom. I imagine if someone described my job as bullshit, I would immediately go on the defensive. There are plenty of jobs that I am not interested in but this does not make said jobs bullshit. You can take the BS job argument to a logical conclusion and argue that almost anything BS and designed just to occupy our time from when we are born to when we die. When people describe their jobs as BS, it seems to me that they get a kind of pleasure from being in the now and that such descriptors make them sound sophisticated and aware instead of like a naive Pollyanna.
I admit that I am coming from this from a position of capitalist-skepticism rather than outright rejection of market capitalism. I do not see market capitalism as being an axiomatic or tautological good. Market capitalism is a tool and sometimes it is the right tool and others times it is not the right tool. My general views on when capitalism is not the right tool is typical of the left and the subject for another essay.
The fifteen-hour week also seems to be used as a jumping off point for discussions on how consumerism and positional goods make certain sections of the left deeply uncomfortable. Here I depart from my leftier brethren as well. There are serious environmental reasons why overconsumption is bad and we should be mindful consumers but I don’t see wanting or desiring consumer goods and/or positional goods as being inherently immoral, unethical, or wrong. Everyone does it whether they realize it or not but often for different things. I am also not very spiritual as a person. My liberalism is concerned with giving people opportunities to live with dignity, decency, and comfort while on this earth and that involves access to decent education, decent healthcare, food and water but also opportunities or recreation and pleasure. I think consumer goods from video games to movies to music to fashion to fancy cooking equipment and everything inbetween help make life more enjoyable and this makes them acceptable in my mind. The hill of anti-consumerism is not one that I want the left to die on and I don’t understand their never ending fetish for wanting to die on this particular hill. It seems that certain sections of the left sees consumer goods are seen as another avenue for corporate control over our lives.
I think we do probably work too much. Science seems to think maximum human productivity happens at 40-50 hours a week and then suffers diminishing returns. Striving to give every person a 35-50 hour is a worthy goal. There are very few things that demand more work except actual life and death circumstances. In my experience most work after 50 hours is because of a failure to delegate in a timely manner and poor project management, because of perverse incentives from billable hours, and a desire to prove machismo by working long and hard.