Can Shorter Days Save a Human Workforce in the Age of Automation?

March 20, 2017

by Mitch Ziems

If you ask me, there are actually three certainties in life: death, taxes, and a 40-hour work week.

Whether you’re seeking full-time employment, or employing people for your own business, no matter the industry, size of the company, or the actual requirements of the job, we are led to believe this number represents the amount of time in any given week that a worker will need to complete their tasks.

Why?

We might assume that going back to the birth of the 40-hour work week will provide us with an answer. Back to 1817, when social reform activist Robert Owens coined the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”. However, Owens’ campaign for a revised work day was driven not by any kind of realisation that workers only needed eight hours each day to do their duty, but rather by a need to defend their health from the toll that 12-16 hour, 6 day work weeks were taking. There was no science behind it, just a need to address an issue.

The issue was addressed, with the introduction of unions and greater emphasis on the rights of the workers. It also proved to boost productivity; when Ford Motor Company introduced the 8-hour day in 1914, along with a pay raise across the factory floor, profit margins doubled over two years.

But a lot has changed since then. The workers who helped Ford reach such massive profits are gone, and many who followed in their footsteps have now been replaced by machines. As, in the near future, will up to 40% of workers across all industries over the next 10-15 years.

As the age of automation dawns, we must start questioning whether the 40-hour work week can possibly play a part in it.

Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale thinks the answer is a resounding no. At a speech to the National Press Club on March 15th, he highlighted the need for a redefining of an optimal work week.

“We want to kick off a conversation about the future of work and start by questioning the entrenched political consensus that a good life can only come from more work.”

“A four-day work week, or a six-hour day might actually make us happier and create more opportunities for others,” he declared, citing research that found 16% of Australians want to work more hours in a week, while 25% want to work less.

Di Natale is hardly the first to propose such profound changes. In 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes spoke of a 15-hour work week. Keynes was keenly aware that technology was being developed at such a rate that humans would eventually be able to liberate themselves from work. He considered this reason to celebrate and, in fact, thought working at all would only be necessary for those who wanted to satiate“old Adam” – the compulsion to remain active and relevant that lies within many of us.

“We shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible.”

While the 15-hour work week has yet to eventuate, many companies in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, have transitioned to a 6-hour work day. The local Toyota plant made the change in 2003, moving from one nine-hour shift to two six-hour shifts a day. In that time, profits have risen 25%, even with the two teams being paid full wages.

For other businesses, the change has been less to their liking. A retirement home that experimented with shorter work days spent an additional 22% on wages, and declared the system “too expensive”.

It’s here that the greatest challenges to a reduced work week arise, and they all revolve around cost.

There is general concern that a broad move to shorter work weeks will trigger a rise in underemployment: a trend that’s seen part-time employment rise while full-time roles decline. If employees working for less than eight hours a day are declared part-time workers, and paid less as a result, social disparity threatens to send a rift through the workforce, and our national economy.

Worse still is the fear that a call for businesses to pay full-time rates for workers on reduced hours might drive those in charge to automate their workforce sooner than the country can prepare to deal with the unemployment.

What’s needed, says Di Natale, is a social security net like Finland’s recently-introduced Universal Basic Income that will ensure workers swept up in the work revolution land on their feet.

Such a proposal is sure to draw the ire of both major parties, but Di Natale concedes that his speech was designed to “kick off a conversation” rather than define a solid plan.

In any case, something must be done. Australia is not prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Nor is the rest of the world. Experts look to history and are quick to remind us that in times of revolution in the workforce, those displaced have found a way to carry on. But this is different, and it affects everyone.

If a shorter work week can ensure balance, purpose, security, and a sense of relevancy (both in and out of the workplace) in the face of such change, it is time for businesses and governments to start seriously considering it.

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