With climate change threatening life as we know it, perhaps it's time to revive the forgotten goal of spending less time on our jobs
What I'm talking about is something more radical, a change that meets the daunting and unaddressed challenge that climate change is presenting. Let's start the discussion in the range of a full day off to cutting our work hours in half — and eliminating half of the wasteful, exploitive, demeaning, make-work jobs that this economy-on-steroids is creating for us, and forcing us to take if we want to meet our basic needs.
Taking even a day back for ourselves and our environment will seem like crazy-talk to many readers, even though our bosses would still command more days each week than we would. But the idea that our machines and other innovations would lead us to work far less than we do now — and that this would be a natural and widely accepted and expected part of economic evolution — has a long and esteemed philosophical history.
Perhaps this forgotten goal is one worth remembering at this critical moment in our economic and environmental development.
Author and historian Chris Carlsson has been beating the "work less" drum in San Francisco since Jimmy Carter was president, when he and his fellow anti-capitalist activists decried the dawning of an age of aggressive business deregulation that continues to this day.
They responded with creative political theater and protests on the streets of the Financial District, and with the founding of a magazine called Processed World, highlighting how new information technologies were making corporations more powerful than ever without improving the lives of workers.
"What do we actually do all day and why? That's the most basic question that you'd think we'd be talking about all the time," Carlsson told us. "We live in an incredibly powerful and overarching propaganda society that tells you to get your joy from work."
But Carlsson isn't buying it, noting that huge swaths of the economy are based on exploiting people or the planet, or just creating unproductive economic churn that wastes energy for its own sake. After all, the Gross Domestic Product measures everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
"The logic of growth that underlies this society is fundamentally flawed," Carlsson said. "It's the logic of the cancer cell — it makes no sense."
What makes more sense is to be smart about how we're using our energy, to create an economy that economizes instead of just consuming everything in its path. He said that we should ask, "What work do we need to do and to what end?"
We used to ask such questions in this country. There was a time when working less was the goal of our technological development.
"Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, the reduction of worktime was one of the nation's most pressing issues," professor Juliet B. Schor wrote in her seminal 1991 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. "Through the Depression, hours remained a major social preoccupation. Today these debates and conflicts are long forgotten."
Work hours were steadily reduced as these debates raged, and it was widely assumed that even greater reductions in work hours was all but inevitable. "By today, it was estimated that we could have either a 22-hour week, a six-month workyear, or a standard retirement age of 38," Schor wrote, citing a 1958 study and testimony to Congress in 1967.
But that didn't happen. Instead, declining work hours leveled off in the late 1940s even as worker productivity grew rapidly, increasing an average of 3 percent per year 1948-1968. Then, in the 1970s, workers in the US began to work steadily more hours each week while their European counterparts moved in the opposite direction.
"People tend to think the way things are is the way it's always been," Carlsson said. "Once upon a time, they thought technology would produce more leisure time, but that didn't happen."