The Work-Play Balance in America vs. the World

We're 16 years from the 15-hour work week envisioned by Keynes, and if anything, we're moving in the opposite direction.
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(Photo: BoBaa22/Shutterstock)

(Photo: BoBaa22/Shutterstock)

In 1956, General Motors presented an optimistic vision of the future that involved less work and more play. In a short, surreal musical titled Design for Dreaming, produced to promote that year's General Motors Motorama auto show, a masked man guides a woman past displays of the latest offerings from Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac. He then transports her into the so-called Kitchen of Tomorrow—furnished by the then GM-owned company Frigidaire—where she's left to bake a cake. The automated appliances are unlike anything she's ever seen. "You don't have to be chained to the stove all day; just set the timer and you're on your way," she sings with glee. "Tick tock, tick tock, I'm free to have fun around the clock."

Contrast this with a recent ad from Cadillac, in which a man standing beside his backyard pool asks why Americans work so hard. It's a rhetorical question. Throughout the one-minute commercial, he and his puffed-up chest march around his opulent home praising America's relentless pursuit of success while simultaneously disparaging other nations for stopping by the café after work and taking the entire month of August off. Finding ways to have fun around the clock, it seems, is no longer the goal.

While GM's Design for Dreaming, which first aired nearly 60 years ago, promised that progress, rationalism, and technological innovation would liberate people to do as they pleased, it appears GM's modern message is to shun rest and relaxation as pastimes for those who aren't "crazy-driven, hard-working believers."

A new economy results in new occupations: creative jobs, social jobs, jobs that involve solving problems still unknown.

TODAY, AMERICANS ARE WORKING a heck of a lot. Statistics suggest that people in 1990 spent almost one month more at the office than they did in 1970. Plus, when compared to other OECD countries, U.S. workers average more hours on the job per year than most.

Meanwhile, some European nations are doing exactly what the man in Cadillac's borderline jingoistic ad belittled them for doing: trying to find ways to work less. As Jared Keller explained here recently, the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, has proposed plans to experiment with a six-hour workday for municipal employees. “We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days," said Mats Pilhem, Gothenburg's deputy mayor. In France, a new labor agreement has granted a group of employees the right to ignore work-related emails after they've left the office for the day. Last summer, Germany's employment ministry established similar guidelines, believing that "technology should not be allowed to control us and dominate our lives; we should control technology."

In a sense, machines are doing the work once set aside for people, but not necessarily in a way that benefits everyone. With more and more automation appearing in agriculture, manufacturing, and the checkout aisles of grocery stores across America, fewer and fewer money-making opportunities are available for humans. According to a 2013 report from Oxford, in the coming two decades artificial intelligence very well may become responsible for nearly half of today's jobs. Journalists are projecting that could include pharmacists, drivers, soldiers, and babysitters.

Then again, a new economy results in new occupations: creative jobs, social jobs, jobs that involve solving problems still unknown. Two hundred years ago, for example, the majority of American workers worked on a farm. Now, machines do 99 percent of that labor—and yet society has somehow managed to survive. People adapted.

So what kind of future are we hurtling toward? One in which robots do all the heavy lifting while the unwashed masses with empty stomachs and unpaid mortgages scrounge for scraps on the sidelines, possibly thinking cannibalistic thoughts whenever a wealthy guy drives by in his Cadillac? Or one in which robots do all the heavy lifting while nourished humans of all sorts paint, travel, nap, and run around in the park all afternoon with their offspring?

It seems the key to building something that more closely resembles the latter involves one part ingenuity, one part moderation. As economic professors David H. Autor and David Dorn argue in the New York Times, we'll need to double down on education and focus more on jobs that require what they call "human flexibility"—meaning, a complicated mixture of tasks that computers simply cannot do (yet).

The other ingredient is what the aforementioned European countries are seeking: Less stress from more rest. Since the emerging economy requires employees and entrepreneurs alike to constantly conjure up innovative ideas, our priority should be sound minds. Study after study has indicated that a healthy body produces more than a person riddled with anxiety due to too much work and not enough sleep.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a famous essay titled Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Near the end, he says:

I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself.

The purpose of the piece: to envision a time 100 years later when only 15-hour work weeks were necessary—mainly to alleviate the onset of boredom in a world brimming with leisure and abundance.