1½-Day Work Week

    what we could have had   what we chose instead
   
MON
 
TUE
 
WED
 
THU
 
FRI
 
SAT
 
SUN
 
STUFF
 
MORE
 
MORE
 
MORE
1950
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
 
1960
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
 
1970
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
 
1980
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
 
1990
 
WORK
 
WORK
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
 
2000
 
WORK
 
WORK
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
FREE
 
 

Notes

If we wanted to, we could work just 1½ days a week, and enjoy 5½ days of freedom

According to US government figures, we were over 3 times more productive in the year 2000 than we were in 1950. If we had chosen to take all those productivity gains as time off work, we could now be working just 1½ days a week, and taking the other 5½ days to explore, invent, compose, draw, write, read, play, relax and love.

Instead, we chose to take all those productivity gains as more stuff. About 16 times more stuff, to be precise, after adjusting for inflation. Some of that stuff is pretty neat. I like being able to download radio shows from around the world to my MP3 player (NPR's Planet Money as well as BBC's Thinking Allowed), and use the web to order almost any book delivered to my local library.

But let's be clear about all that stuff. There were plenty of poor people in 1950 – just as there are plenty of poor people today – but the typical American was reasonably comfortable back then. As far as sociologists have been able to tell, all the extra stuff we have been accumulating since then has not made us any happier.

Extra time, on the other hand, and freedom from the indignities of work, might have made us a whole lot happier.

Let's not be all-or-nothing about this. I would happily work, say, 2 days a week rather than 1½ if it meant that I could still buy the occasional avocado or mango from my local fruit and vegetable store. But given that most of us are still working 40 hours or more a week – given that we've taken none of the productivity gains as time off work – we've surely got the balance badly wrong. We just don't need to work so hard. If we made a collective decision to work less, we'd still be grotesquely rich, we'd just be, well, able to lead fuller, more fulfilled lives.

Of course, there's reason to be skeptical about the US government productivity figures. I suspect that they don't fully take into account house price rises; perhaps, instead of buying 16 times more stuff, we're just spending 16 times more for the same old houses. I'd love to put together another things made thinkable presentation investigating such economic perversities, but right now, with the demands of my full-time job, not to mention my part-time job, I just don't have the time.

Comments

Heather ⋅ 29 July 2013

I live in New Jersey. My property taxes are 10,000 a year for your average house (the house is worth 200,000). Now that's a big chunk of my money seemingly going out the window. I realize children need to be educated and roads need to be built... but I have a well for water and septic system for waste. When and why have these taxes gone crazy?!

I am working one day every week just to pay my property taxes.

Books

Affluenza by Oliver James – a must-read psychologist's take on the societal trends that have led to our choosing work and consumption over freedom to live our lives

The Idler – a mind-blowing annual collection of radical essays extolling idleness over soul-destroying work, with a view to promoting liberty, autonomy and responsibility

The Book of Idle Pleasures edited by Dan Kieran and Tom Hodgkinson – if you're worried whether you'd be able to fill all those days off work, read this quirky celebration of life and worry no longer

If a book is listed on things made thinkable, it means I have read it from cover to cover and can recommend it as a thought-provoking follow-up to this page; the link is invariably to the author's or publisher's site, but you'll generally find the book listed for less by online booksellers, or available for free at the library

Sources

U.S. Department of Labor – Bureau of Labor Statistics – Report on the American Workforce 2001 – Table 24. Productivity and related data, business and nonfarm business sectors, 1947-2000

Work weeks 1950-2000 calculated from Output per hour of all persons – Business sector in the above report

Purchasing power 1950-2000 calculated from Real compensation per hour – Business sector in the above report

Erik Rauch – Productivity and the Workweek – Erik Rauch has much the same idea as I did for this presentation, makes some sensible observations and pointed me straight to the relevant BLS data

Erik Rauch – Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek – Erik Rauch quotes from The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure by Juliet B. Schor: "One of capitalism's most durable myths is that it has reduced human toil"

Erik Rauch – Eight centuries of annual hours – Erik Rauch's wonderful summary of work hours over the centuries; I would like to work this data into another things made thinkable presentation

Date

First published 17 August 2011

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