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With Ever Growing Productivity, Why Must We Keep Working 40-50 Hours a Week For So Many Years of Our Life?

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Headlined to H3 3/7/11

There are other kinds of wealth and riches besides those that have to do with the maximized consumption of resources, fuel, and consumer goods.   This many Americans fail to grasp.   In his essay, In Praise of Idleness -- which I think for a modern audience should have been titled, In Praise of Leisure and Leisure Time -- Bertrand Russell explained it something like this:

Modern industrial techniques have made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessities of life for everyone.   This was made obvious as far back as World War II, and is of course much more true today than it was then, owing to the continuing advance of automation and computerization over all the years since then.  

During the great war, all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, and all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war, were of course withdrawn from economically productive occupations.   However, in spite of this, the general level of well-being among most unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or even for a long time after the war.   In other words, the war demonstrated that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort using just a very small part of the working capacity of the modern world.  

The main point to be understood here cries out for reiteration:   By the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort using only a very small part of the working capacity of the modern world.   And so it is that we can draw this startling and revolutionary conclusion:   If, at the end of the war, this scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munitions work, had been preserved after the war, and the working hours of each week had been cut from 40 to 20 (for one and all), so as to accommodate all those who no longer had war-associated work to do, all would have been well.   But instead of that, the old chaos was restored:     some were made to work the unnecessarily long 40 hours, and the rest were thrown into poverty and unemployment.   Why?   Because, it was said, "work is a duty," and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but only in proportion to the virtue assigned to him by his employers and the industry in which he is involved.   And so it was that sufficient work to go around could only begin to be generated by encouraging the consumption of ever more in the way of relatively superfluous goods and services -- how else was anything even approaching sufficient employment opportunities to be generated?

To better understand this reasoning, let's take an illustration from Russell's essay  

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins.   They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day.   Then someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins.   But pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price.  

In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight each day, and everything else would go on as before.   But in the actual world, this would be branded "demoralizing to workers."   Plus, it would allow no increase in profits to employers and business owners.   Therefore men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously occupied in the making pins are soon thrown out of work.   There is, in the end, just as much leisure (or idle time) as on the other plan, but now half the men are totally idle while the other half are still overworked, enjoying very little if any idle or leisure time.   In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness.  

Can anything more insane be imagined?

 (Click here to see Russell's original and unmodified essay.)

The key point to understand here is that by throwing half the men out of work every time such a situation arises, and working the other half as hard as before, maximal profits are made for the owners of businesses.   Hence:

  • the growing pollution and resource waste that results from maximized consumption on the part of the second half of the workers, who still have decently paid jobs, and also . .
  • the crime and demoralization that is generated from the poverty and unemployment/underemployment of the first half, who no longer have (decently paid) jobs, as a result of this insanity.  


Also to understand:   the materialism and hyperconsumption that is generated from this as well as:

  • a $400 billion/year advertising & marketing industry in America, and
  • the whole phenomenon of "keeping up with the Joneses," as most women (prevented from equally good incomes themselves) struggle to meet and marry (from among the winning half of male workers) the best "provider" they can find.  


Meanwhile, the most "eligible" bachelors, from this winning half, play along, in order to get in the pants of as many of these struggling women as possible (most young men love novelty).   For more on the entirety of this sad situation, read Warren Farrell's book, Why Men Are the Way They Are.

In a nutshell:   Since the end of WWII, growing production efficiency has allowed ever fewer workers to produce all the basic goods and services that most people need in order to maintain a modicum of happiness and contentment.   However, instead of this leading to an ever shorter workweek, work-month or work-life (i.e. earlier retirement) for most people, we have allowed the lion's share of all the surplus value now generated (by this immense increase in productivity) to be guided into the pockets of the very rich.   They in turn "reward' most of us with ever more work opportunities and obligations, so that we are compelled to produce all the growing variety of mostly superfluous things that can most profitably be sold, principally to those fortunate enough to have well paid employment.  

And so it came to be that an ever increasing majority of the work that is done each day in the US is necessary only to meet the increasingly superfluous wants of those who are convinced by the $400 billion/yr. advertizing and marketing industry that they need the latest and nicest car, the largest and nicest house, the finest clothes, the best vacations (etc. etc. etc.) that they can possibly have.   Meanwhile, with all of this unnecessarily superfluous consumption, ever more carbon-based fuel is burned, ever more of our natural and mineral resources are squandered, ever more carbon dioxide and methane rises into our upper atmosphere, and ever more global climate craziness and air pollution occur.   By this means, climate extremes (like mega-tornadoes, mega-hurricanes, mega-floods) and diseases (like cancer and autism) multiply, as do the phenomenal costs of these things to society and to most of the individuals in it.  

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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