books business economics lifestyle

Workers of the world relax, by Conrad Schmidt

In the future, machines will be so much more productive that we will barely have to work. It will all be done for us, and the biggest problems we’ll face will be how to use our leisure time. That was a genuine concern not so long ago. Half of the futurists’ predictions were correct – productivity has increased by 400% since the 1950s. The half they didn’t get right was the leisure time. Instead of making the most of that new productivity and working less, we work just as much as we did before, and buy more.

‘Workers of the World relax’ is activist Conrad Schmidt’s call for less work – shorter work hours to save the world.

“Technological innovation, combined with cheap energy supplies, increased industrial efficiency; industry was able to produce more goods and services with less labour. This presented us with an option. We could perform less industrial labour or continue to work hard while producing and consuming more. We chose the second option.”

This is, in fact, Jevon’s paradox on a grand scale. Stanley Jevons was the economist who observed the effects of coal efficiency in steam engines, and concluded that “as technological improvements increase the efficiency with with a resource is used, total consumption of that resource may increase, rather than decrease.” (So, for example, someone could invent a ‘green’ jet tomorrow that could fly to Australia with half the CO2 emissions. It is likely that so many more people would want to fly to Australia that overall emissions would stay the same.) In the case of industry, efficiency in the US improved by 400%, so theoretically workers could be working a quarter of the hours. Instead, the average American works 12% longer than they did in 1970.

Consumerism is at the heart of this problem, and it has been deployed as a deliberate strategy. “The lesson learnt from the Great Depression was that industrial efficiency needs to be balanced by consumerism” writes Schmidt. This equation gives us a new definition: “consumerism is social inefficiency. It is the inefficiency with which we use goods produced.”

In other words, the better we are at making things, the better we have to be at wasting things and throwing them away, otherwise we’ll end up with a whole pile of unsold stuff. (Like in the Great Depression) So fashion has to be increasingly disposable, food increasingly packaged and processed, commutes become longer – all inefficiencies of one kind or another. Urban sprawl is Schmidt’s key example, as the “most inefficient social invention of the 20th century”, because it required the use of cars, which are expensive, and oil. Facing climate change and peak oil, a whole geography based around the car now looks like a very bad idea.

The answer, according to Schmidt, is to go back to the original problem of increased productivity and choose again. Instead of producing and consuming more, we can claim that extra leisure time- “work less, produce less and consume less.” This will have a number of benefits. “A reduced workweek is an environmental, social, technological and political revolution that will result in greater income equality, more environmentally sound civil design, improvements in democracy and healthier living standards.” To that end, Conrad runs the ‘Work Less Party’, which puts up candidates in Canadian local politics. Or you can just take matters into your own hands, and go part-time.

I find Schmidt’s proposal quite compelling, and I’d like to read more about it. Unfortunately the book is a slim one, and doesn’t explore the topic as much as it could. There’s no mention of one of the best examples of a short work week, the experiment that the Kellogg company carried out, or the thinkers who inspired it, such as Arthur Dahlberg. There’s room for more on the Great Depression too, and Hugo Black’s proposal to Roosevelt for a 33 hour week. And of course the EU’s current restrictions on working hours, which the UK foolishly opted out of. Still, as a simple articulation of a good idea however, ‘Workers of the World Relax’ is an easy, entertaining and enlightening read.

8 comments

  1. It sounds like we’ve arrived on Solaria and it hasn’t even been discovered yet. Of the original 50 settled planets (in Isaac Asimov’s famous Robot series), Solaria has the highest robot to person ratio like 200 to one. People live in total isolation and are even raised by robots. Actual human contact is limited to Holograms.

  2. And yet I still have to make my own coffee in the morning. Where’s my breakfast robot?

    Actually I worked in a factory a few years back where they had installed an £8 million robot to pick up steel bars and hang them on hooks to go into a painting machine. They had laid off ten staff members for the robot, but several weeks later they were still fine-tuning the robot. It would pick up the twenty-foot bars and just throw them across the room or drop them. The factory had to temporarily re-hire some of the staff, along with me, until they got it right.

    I was working alongside these men who had just been replaced by a machine, and they had a mixture of resentment at the robot and glee that it wasn’t working. We’d lift bars for a bit, and then sit on boxes for an hour while the robot had a go, and then tidy up its mess and carry on again. I learned a lot in those three weeks, and whenever I read about technological progress and machines replacing jobs, I think of those men.

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