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I had coffee with a friend the other day; she’s a fresh new yo-pro. “Work’s going good,” she said. “Been doing heaps of overtime, my boss is always there and he promotes people who put in the hours, so I always start an hour early, and only finish when he leaves.” It’s an all too familiar concept, but it doesn’t make sense. Why should one’s work be measured in hours, rather than output or productivity? I have a feeling I’m not going to like the 40 hour work week, not because I can’t see myself slipping into that lifestyle very easily, but rather that I know that life has been specifically designed to encourage me to consume—and I’m not into that.
The 40 hour work week didn’t come into existence through evolution—it was invented, and for a specific purpose. During the industrial revolution, factories were operating around the clock, and staff were working 16 hour days. Then, in the 1920s, Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motors, changed things by creating the five day/40 hour week. Why? Because how were people meant to buy anything (specifically Ford cars) if they didn’t have any time to do so? By creating the 40 hour work week, people had enough time off to spend money, but were also working enough that they felt exhausted, and were hungry to consume as a reward.
I’ve certainly noticed how my own spending patterns have changed with my workload. I’m currently travelling, with no income and lots of time. You’d think I’d be chewing through money faster than ever before, but when you have time, you find rewarding experiences without needing to pay for them. This past week, I’ve spent my time at the art gallery, walking through Hyde Park with friends, and finishing my book. I suddenly have an excess of time, and I’m not spending money. The opposite has also been true. When I have done 40 hour work weeks, I found myself very quick to justify spending—”It’s gonna be a big day, I should get that bomb-diggity muesli from Prefab to start my day off properly, it’ll make me way happier than porridge at home, and therefore I’ll be more productive.” (Yeah, right). Too much time is the enemy to the economy—work ‘em hard, take away their time, and they’ll spend lots of money when they have it.
By living in a corporate society in which we are more or less locked into working the nine to five, we are moulded to be spenders. Parkinson’s Law is the notion that work expands so as to fill the time available for completion, and maybe this is the only reason that the work week takes 40+ hours. It wouldn’t take this long if we had less time, but we let our work take 40 hours because that’s what everyone else does. And then we work overtime. And then we spend more than we should.
However, it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way. Not long after the industrial revolution and the implementation of the 40-hour work week, economist John Keynes predicted a dramatic increase in living standards. Using a mathematical model, Keynes determined that in the next hundred years, people would only need to work 15 hours to achieve that same standard of living, as what was being achieved in 40 hours at the time. Fast forward to now, and it turns out we’re still doing the 40 hour work week. Yes, our living standards have improved eightfold, but now we want more, so we spend more, and we work the same hours. Improvements in technology have done little to change our predicament either. Technology has improved our productivity so much, that it only takes us 11 hours to produce as much as 40 hours work did in 1950. Yet still, nothing has changed, and we still leave work time poor at the end of the week.
I don’t know what the solution is—I’m applying for a graduate job at the moment and I can’t imagine convincing them that I only want to work four days a week, but something needs to change. Raising wages isn’t going to give us more time. Studies have shown that as people’s wages increase, they work longer hours because work becomes an increasingly profitable use of time. Essentially, when people view their time in terms of money, they grow stingy with time to try and maximise money. I think the first step towards any real change is an awareness. If we constantly evaluate our use of time, and try to measure both our work, and our breaks, in productivity rather than time, we’ll be making the first step in the right direction. Yes, we need managers and big companies to take a step in this direction as well, but if we don’t start talking about it, we’ll never see change.
Bridget studies physics, maths and marketing; she hopes one day to use this to open a cafe.