The 15-Hour Work Week: What Happened To Past Predictions?

In 1930, John M. Keynes predicted we would work 15 hours per week in 2030.

Nearly a decade more wise, we all know this hasn’t happened yet. However, the most interesting thing about his prediction is the reason behind.

Keynes believed we would have lots of leisure time in 2030 because living standards and productivity would have improved and we wouldn’t need to work as much anymore to satisfy our needs.

He actually believed the biggest problem would be what to do with all the leisure time we would have available: “three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

Other famous people had similar predictions. Benjamin Franklin also believed that four hours of work per day would suffice and that life outside of work would be just leisure. George Bernard Shaw thought we would work 2 hours per day by 2000. You get the point.

When the Industrial Revolution started in the mid-1800, we started to see the average work week decline for each individual worker.

As you can see, the trend was looking quite positive. In 1965, the US Senate committee report predicted a work week of 14 hours.

The graph shows a downward trend all the way to at least 1980, which seems positive right? It could look like we might get to 15 hours per week in time.

There’s just one problem. Since the 1980s, the graph hasn’t really decreased much (in the US it has increased).

It wasn’t because productivity suddenly declined. In fact, real GDP per capita has in most developed countries doubled since 1980.

Interestingly, right around the same time in the 1980s, globalization and consumerism gained traction.

When economies grow and productivity increases, we can do two things roughly speaking. We can exchange economic growth into more consumption or more leisure.

Unfortunately for many people and planet Earth, we have not spent our economic growth on more leisure. Instead we have gone on an absolute consumerism craze spending far above our means using credit. We never made it to the 15-hour work week.

Right around the same time (the 1980s), instead of workers becoming more wealthy, the gap between productivity and real wages have increased.

Source: Wikipedia

This is partly due to the productivity gains ending up on the companies’ bottom lines and executive pay instead. In fact, CEOs are paid 937% more in real wages in 2013 compared to 1978.

Billedresultat for corporate profits real wages us
Source: U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

So, the reason we have missed Keynes’ prediction of a 15-hour work week is mostly that productivity gains have not been translated into fewer working hours, but instead credit-fueled consumerism (remember, real wages did not increase), corporate profits and executive pay.

Instead of fighting boredom from not having enough work (as Keynes predicted), we are fighting stress at an unprecendented rate.

Is a 15-hour work week desirable? If so, how do we get there?

There’s not a clear answer to this, but I do have some ideas. I’m not sure whether a 15-hour work week is the solution. It might be a 20-hour work week or something else, but I am confident it would solve many problems if we started working less.

The most common argument against working less is that our standard of living would collapse. We simply cannot afford working less some people argue.

This argument is flawed. There’s a strong correlation between working fewer hours and having higher productivity. In fact, we might increase the total output if we started working less.

Billedresultat for working hours and productivity OECD
Source: The Economist

So solely from an economic point-of-view, there’s ample scientific evidence that there’s a business case for working less.

Apart from this, there’s other good reasons to work less:

If we can agree that working less is a good goal for humanity, how do we get there?

The solution to a shorter working week can come from three different angles:

  • Employees: You and I need to demand fewer working hours – we need to push our employers and vote for politicians who support this in a meaningful way.
  • Politicians: Politicians need to make policies about work weeks and realize they have opportunities to improve the populations’ health, improve business productivity, tackle problems arising from demographic changes and – perhaps most importantly – reducing our negative impact on the climate.
  • Corporations: Corporations need to take responsibility for its employees, our planet and their own profits. They need to realize that shorter work weeks is an opportunity rather than a threat.

I know for sure that only relying on the companies and the top 1% to introduce shorter work weeks is going to be hard, so I believe we all have a responsibility to do what we can. If nothing else, we can all start in the ballot box.