Back in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a short essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which he predicted that in a hundred years the 15-hour work week will be commonplace. Keynes made this assertion based on two factors: first, the increase in capital due to extraordinary yields from the compound interest that was made possible by increased foreign (global) investment; second, the growth of technological achievement made necessary by the competitive forces of capitalism and made possible by the availability of excess capital.
Keynes pointed out that these events are recent in terms of the entirety of human history, taking place over the last 500 years. Before that time, things were stagnant. Gold reserves remained static until the opening of the New World and technology, save for a few episodic breakthroughs, was pretty much unchanged. For example, the way cloth was made during the time of Joan of Arc, around 1400 AD, was not that different than the way it was made when the Roman emperor Hadrian had a wall built across northern England in 100 AD.
But, the growing availability of money and technology changed everything. By 1920, the more affluent in the population wore factory-manufactured clothing bought in a store. Those of lesser means might still be making clothes at home, but the cloth from which the garment was made came from a factory.
Mass-market capitalism powered by technological innovation increased human productivity on a scale unique in the human experience. Abundance on a global scale seemed a real possibility within a few generations. According to Keynes,
“If capital increases, say, 2 percent per annum, the capital equipment of the world will have increased by a half in 20 years, and seven and a half times in a hundred years. Think of this in terms of material things—houses, transport, and the like.”
Yet, today most people work 40 hours a week, if not more. Considering that Keynes was essentially a quant who lived and breathed data, how could he get it so wrong?
My thinking is not so much that Keynes got it wrong, but that we’re having a hard time accepting that he might have gotten it right.
Allow me to elaborate.
The Facade of Productivity
I have a theory: For the average contributor-employee in a medium- to large-size corporation (with 500 employees and more), of all the tasks he or she performs during a 40-hour week, only about half—20 hours’ worth—actually add value to the enterprise. The rest is organizational overhead. Thus, there is a good argument to be made that when you do the math, what we can call real full-time employment is closer to Keynes’s prediction of the 15-hour work week than not. The remaining time, which I call “organizational overhead,” is really just a facade of productivity.
This theory occurred to me a while back, when I was sitting in a sprint planning meeting observing a project manager and tech-leads do task assignments. The first thing the project manager did was to determine how much time each member of the project team had available to work on the project’s tasks. The agreed-upon number was 20 hours a week.
The 20-hours a week number struck me as strange. All members of the project team were completely dedicated to the project. They had no side work. The project was their one and only focus. What were they doing with the other 20 hours?
I asked the project manager and he answered, “Well, they have to do things like answer emails, go to meetings and sometimes there’s some firefighting to be done.”
The Amazing Ability to Absorb the Cost of Organizational Overhead
I wish I could say that the project manager’s response was unique. But, in my experience, it’s not. I’ve been in more than one company in which meetings, email and firefighting occupy at least half of a full-time employee’s work week. And, I’ve got to tell you that, except in the rarest instance of mission-critical firefighting, most of these situations have marginal productive value.
Granted, my theory is based on experiences that are anecdotal. The actual numbers might prove me wrong. Obviously, a thorough, quantitative study is needed. Still, whether it’s five, 10, 20 or even 35 hours a week, what’s amazing is not that employees spend a lot of time in activities that have questionable productive value, but rather, that businesses can actually operate profitably despite these ongoing time-sinks. Why? Because of automation. Machines and software are allowing people to do more work in less time—and it’s not only confined to IT.
The Dirty Little Secret of Working on an Assembly Line
Doubling up has always been the dirty little secret of automotive factory work. Ben Hamper revealed the details of technique in his 1986 book, “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.” Here’s how it works: Imagine that you and I work in a GM plant and do jobs at the same location on an assembly line—say, putting headlights and taillights in a car. Your job is to put in the headlights; my job is to put in the taillights. One day I notice that I can probably put the headlights and taillights in a car in the same amount of time it takes two of us to do the tasks separately. So, I propose a deal to you: I’ll do your job and my job for four hours a day in exchange for you doing the same for me. This way we can both work half time for full-time pay. We might have to pay the line foreman a small bribe to look the other way, but what the heck? The benefits are obvious, so we do it. Win-win, as the saying goes.
How can we pull this off? Simple: as stated earlier, automation.
Without the technology of the assembly line, we just couldn’t double up. The car needs to be brought to us for us to increase productivity to the point where one person can do the work of two. The automation of the assembly line effectively reduced our work week while maintaining our productivity, just as Keynes predicted.
As you can see, the 15-hour work week is quite possible—and, in many cases, quite real. It’s just that the facade of productivity, which exists in larger companies, hides its existence. But, what about the smaller companies such as construction companies, law firms, small manufacturers, dental offices and software startups that employ fewer than 100 people? These types of companies cannot afford a lot of non-productive activity. How do these companies get to the 15-hour work week? Is it possible?
My answer is yes, but the world that will need to exist to make the 15-hour work week possible will look dramatically different than the one we have today. What will that world look like? Allow me to illustrate using my neighborhood cafe, the C&M, as an example.
The Real Implications of the 15-Hour Work Week
My favorite neighborhood cafe is the C&M. It’s a hangout sort of place with good food, good coffee and Wi-Fi. The C&M is usually staffed by two employees during its business hours—7 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Between them, they take orders as well as make the food and deliver it to the tables.
Let’s do the math. Let’s figure that the actual working day at the C&M is 12 hours—10 hours of operation time and two hours of setup and cleanup. That comes out to 84 hours a week. Thus, excluding the owners’ time, the number of employee hours needed to run the C&M is 168. (two employees at 84 hours a week.) This comes out to around four people required to staff the business using the current 40-hour work week model, again excluding the owner’s time.
Now, let’s say the business is quite profitable and the owner can afford to pay employees $20 an hour, plus health insurance. Adding in payroll tax and workman’s compensation (more than $5 an hour) plus the cost of health insurance ($400 a month, for illustration purposes), the weekly cost of each employee working 40 hours is $1,100, which translates into a total weekly labor cost for the C&M of $4,400.
So far, so good.
This time, let’s interpret the C&M labor situation in terms of the 15-hour work week. To cover the 168 hours per week that the C&M is operational, at a 15-hour work week per employee, the C&M needs to employee 11 people—actually, it’s 11.2 employees, but I rounded down. So, under Keynes prediction, if each employee is entitled to the established full-time compensation of $1,100 as calculated earlier, the weekly payroll for the C&M goes from $4,400 a week to $12,100—an almost three times increase, which is not an affordable number. Even though the number of employees has gone up, the odds are that the actual sales will remain the same. Instead of having to employ four people producing $14,000 a week in sales—$2,000 a day over seven days, again for illustration purposes—now the owner of the C&M will be employing 11 people to produce the same amount. Bankruptcy is imminent.
Clearly, the C&M cannot tolerate 11 people working 15 hours a week for a full-time wage under current conditions. So much for the 15-hour work week. Well, not so fast. Let’s reimagine the scenario from a different angle: Suppose that the number of employees stays at four, but instead of working 40 hours a week, each employee works 15. What could we add to the mix to make this scenario possible? Give up? OK, I’ll tell you: robots.
Imagine that instead of having two people on hand to set up the cafe, take orders, make the food, bring it over to tables, bus the table and then clean up at the end of the day, we had one person on hand to do what we’ll call human essential work. All the other work gets done by robots. Then, the typical interaction looks like this: Customers enter orders directly into an iPad, the robotic coffee maker gets the order and makes the double espresso, a robot in the kitchen makes the food, with the intermittent help of a human when necessary, and a robot delivers the food to the table. The one human on hand interacts with customers and picks up the slack work the robot can’t do. You can think of the scenario as the restaurant equivalent of a driverless Uber ride.
Is such a world possible? Yes. In fact, it’s happening as you read this article. There’s already a chain of waiterless sushi restaurants in Japan. As the technology drops in price, more restaurants will make the transition.
The 15-hour work week could indeed become a real possibility provided that two conditions exist: affordable robotic technology with a high degree of manual dexterity is available, and the employer is willing to pay the higher wages necessary to support the model.
In the past, workers such as Ben Hamper used their ingenuity to take advantage of the reduction in labor that automation made possible. Sadly, such efforts were clandestine and deceitful. All that GM needed to do to realize a better return on labor was to speed up the assembly line. Yet, when you think about it, back then GM wasn’t doing that badly when Hamper was doubling up. 1984 was a record-setting year in sales, despite his shenanigans. Speeding up the line would undoubtedly increase GM’s bottom line. But, would it double Hamper’s take home? Probably not. (Author’s Note: GM’s sales dropped 26 percent in 1986, but profits were still a healthy $1.06 billion.)
So here are two questions to contemplate: As companies, large and small, adopt robotics to increase productivity, will they indeed share the benefits of the increased productivity with the average worker so he or she can enjoy a 15-hour work week? And then, should the 15-hour work week indeed become standard, what will the average person do with all this newfound leisure? As the saying goes, idle hands make fretful minds. According to Keynes:
“Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
For those of you that think about such things, I will leave up to you to answer these questions. As for me, I can’t wait for the robots to take over so I can go back to my studies, full-time.