Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Future of Money

work-week-illo

(Photo: Evlakhov Valeriy/Shutterstock)

Why Technology Won’t Shorten Your Work Week

• August 06, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Evlakhov Valeriy/Shutterstock)

Despite advances in technology, we’re remarkably good at creating new forms of consumption, which lead to new work, and, in turn, new social hierarchies.

“Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food, and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores,” optimistically proclaims a recent op-ed by the technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post. This kind of techno-utopianism begs for a bit of schadenfreude: The future never quite seems to arrive and we love to watch predictions fail. Yet there somehow remains that gnawing sense of hope—maybe, this time, it actually will.

Over the past week, I’ve embraced Silicon Valley’s methods for getting things done. With the company discounting its services for a launch in the city, I took Lyft cars, the slightly down-market Uber clone, back and forth across Brooklyn. Instead of going shopping in Manhattan, I used eBay Now to have electronics from Target brought to my apartment—no need for multi-day delivery times. These days, I have the option of getting my laundry picked up by car and my organic groceries curated for me.

The existence of these time-saving conveniences provided by well-funded start-ups—the apparent beginnings of our coming techno-utopia—are what pushed Wadhwa to make the grandiose claim that soon, human labor will be irrelevant. In the age of the self-driving car and drone delivery systems, “There won’t be much work for human beings,” he writes. His solution? Let humans work less. “We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today,” Wadhwa proposes. “We may not need the entire population to be working.” Indeed, those not working could focus “on creativity and enlightenment,” he suggests.

One imagines socially established, economically successful people sitting around after the prehistoric invention of fire, loudly proposing that, with this newfound power, humanity will never again have to labor to survive the winter.

Sounds great, right? Wadhwa’s argument runs that technology has fundamentally disrupted not just hotels and food delivery, but the human race itself. We have made ourselves irrelevant, no longer able to compete with technology. “The economic challenge of the future will not be producing enough,” agrees Lawrence H. Summers, the former treasury secretary, in the Wall Street Journal. “It will be providing enough good jobs.”

One imagines socially established, economically successful people like Wadhwa and Summers sitting around after the prehistoric invention of fire, loudly proposing that, with this newfound power, humanity will never again have to labor to survive the winter. What post-work theories like this miss is that humanity is remarkably good at inventing new forms of consumption, which create new jobs, and, in turn, new oppressive hierarchies with little room for “creativity and enlightenment.”

THE IDEA THAT HUMANS are meant to work 40 hours a week is a relatively recent innovation. During the Industrial Revolution, factory workdays stretched anywhere from 10 to 16 hours. The eight-hour-day movement came about in reaction to those conditions in the early 19th century. In 1817, the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen was calling for “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” By 1886, the U.S. Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that eight hours constituted a legal day’s labor.

Yet for all our innovations, workers may have actually been better off in pre-industrial times, when they already knew how to structure a sustainable, lighter work schedule without the help of robots. In her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Juliet B. Schor explains: “Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed.” Medieval labor was broken up multiple times a day for meals and refreshments. A full “day of work” constituted only “half a day,” Schor writes. In 14th-century England, servile laborers worked only 175 days out of the year, and farmers and miners just 180. Even with these schedules, they were able to sustain themselves.

So why don’t we aim for something like this now, cutting down our commitments instead of dreaming up machines that will enable us to labor better instead of less? The problem is systemic, as Marx suggested in his 1867 Capital: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” The more labor we produce, the more demand for labor we drive.

WADHWA AND SUMMERS’ DREAM of a robot-run utopia is not a new one, of course. It’s a myth that exists in the Jetsons and in Pixar’s Wall-E, which increasingly resembles a cautionary, rather than fairy, tale. In 1960, the Japanese architectural critic and poet Noboru Kawazoe sketched his similar vision: “Soon the time will come that everything will be done by machine. The only thing we have to do will be dreaming.” That time hasn’t arrived, but we can certainly dream.

For every benefit that I was provided in the past week, those harbingers of utopia, there were humans, rather than robots, behind the process. It was still a person who brought products to my door or drove me to my next destination. These are the new jobs that we create and fill, servicing the fresh demands created by technology—the demand to be anywhere and receive anything instantly. Wadhwa and Summers won’t take these servile jobs. Instead, it will be the new working class. For the upper echelons, I’m sure the service will seem suitably robotic.

The technology we praise today for its frictionless efficiency places the onus for labor ever more squarely on humans. As I saved time in my own schedule this week by not having to travel to shop or avoiding the delays of the subway, I found myself working more, not less. The time I saved never felt like my own because I was somehow cheating to get it, and I had to take full advantage of the opportunity to gain even more through work.

As new technological innovations are developed, the nature of labor may change, but the workday is going nowhere. That’s because at its root is still the desire to consume. Kawazoe put that compulsion succinctly in a line that may as well describe the vision of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: “I want to be a god.”

In the end, the CEOs are the only ones living anything close to that particular dream.

Kyle Chayka
Kyle Chayka is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @chaykak.

More From Kyle Chayka

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.