Nice work – if we can all do less of it

April 20, 2017

In “Rise of the machines” (30 March), Nancy Gleason argues that automation will supplant more than a billion jobs worldwide by 2050, many of these at graduate level, but I think she has missed an important point. This is that the developed world is long overdue another downturn in the normal hours of the working week.

Writing in 1930 in a short pamphlet entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, John Maynard Keynes predicted that we would all be working a normal 15-hour week by 2030, and clearly we are not there yet. The battle for a normal working day of 10 hours was won in Britain by the 1860s after a series of Factory Acts between 1840 and 1865. In the 20th century, the working week was reduced further to between 40 and 48 hours per week, largely as a result of ending the hitherto normal practice of Saturday working.

At every stage in the reduction of the normal hours of work, employers have argued that they could not afford it or else Britain would not be competitive in world trade, and yet here we are with something like a normal five-day working week of between 35 and 40 hours per week at the beginning of the 21st century. How long then do we have to wait for another reduction in the normal hours of work to, let us say, a four-day week of 30 hours or so or a three-day week of 24 hours? And even – and why not? – a two-day week of 15 hours.

If everyone who is presently working somewhere between 40 and 48 hours per week reduced their normal hours of work to 20 to 24 hours per week, this would at a stroke double the number of jobs that are available to young people, 25 per cent of whom are unemployed throughout Europe, and this would also give the rest of us who are in employment a much-needed break to do something else with our greatly expanded leisure time.

Automation is a good thing! Who wants to spend their life working in a factory or even still less, as Gleason says, as an accountant or a lawyer if this can be avoided. Much better to do something else.

Kenneth Smith
Reader in criminology and sociology
Bucks New University

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