More and more jobs are disappearing, as automation and artificial intelligence take on tasks formerly reserved for humans. Since our jobs provide many of us with both structure and purpose, this trend raises a question: What will be lost in a post-work world?
New research provides a somewhat reassuring answer. It finds that people can still enjoy the mental and emotional benefits of employment even if they work as little as a few hours a week.
"We know unemployment is often detrimental to people's well-being, negatively affecting identity, status, time use, and sense of collective purpose," co-author Brendan Burchell, a Cambridge University sociologist, said in announcing the findings. "We now have some idea of just how much paid work is needed to get the psychosocial benefits of employment—and it's not that much at all."
If work becomes scarce, "we will have to rethink current norms," adds lead author Daiga Kamerade of the University of Salford. "This should include the redistribution of working hours, so everyone can get the mental-health benefits of a job, even if that means we all work much shorter weeks."
The researchers analyzed data from the United Kingdom's Household Longitudinal Study, which includes information on nearly 85,000 people between the ages of 16 and 64. Participants were asked the number of hours they worked in a normal week, with a range of "zero to eight" to "44 to 48."
The subjects answered a series of questions designed to determine their mental health and general well-being, specifically including any episodes of depression, sleep problems, or an inability to concentrate. They also rated their overall satisfaction with their lives on a one-to-seven scale.
After taking into account such factors as age, marital status, children, illness, and household income, the researchers attempted to determine the optimum number of work hours per week for maximum mental health. To their surprise, they couldn't pinpoint such a number.
Rather, they found that "the significant difference in mental health and well-being is between those with paid work, and those with none." Differences between those working more and fewer hours were not significant.
"The average effective dose of employment for mental health and well-being is only about the equivalent of one day per week," the researchers conclude. "This suggests the 'normal' full-time working week could be shortened without a detrimental [psychological] effect."
These findings, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, have potentially major public policy implications.
"Most policy options for addressing a potential rise in unemployment levels have focused on measures such as a universal basic income to provide economic support to those without employment," the researchers write.
"Our findings support an alternative, more radical, theoretical perspective: a redistribution of working hours in society. In this alternative, full employment is retained, but a typical working week is reduced so that work is redistributed to everybody who wants paid work."
Leaving a lot of people idle—even if they have a guaranteed income—seems like a bad idea, according to these findings, given that employed people "have far fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression than the unemployed or economically inactive," the researchers note. Far better to spread the work around, with everyone working one or two days a week, and thereby enjoying the psychological and emotional benefits of being employed.
Advocating for that sort of system would constitute a different type of right-to-work movement.