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

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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