One of the discombobulating factors in public discourse in recent years is the seeming absence of any reason, logic or even self-interest behind the surface cacophony. Politics as practiced until recently was based on self-serving lies. We knew politicians lied. The important thing was why they lied. The main question to ask was what outcome was the lie in service of. I used to know why politicians were lying. But not anymore. Some people believe they can discern a cunning masterplan behind the politics of the last few years. It looks to me more like chaos (which manifests as unconscious archetypal machinations).
So, when a story comes along that features some good old-fashioned naked self-interest masquerading as moral rectitude, it’s almost a relief. One such story caught my eye as it’s been doing the rounds in Australian media recently. The story is that we’re about to introduce a 4-day work week. This will be, according to a recent media article penned by a professor at UTS Sydney, a “great leap forward”. I can’t figure out if this is an ironic or a deliberate reference to Chairman Mao’s disastrous reform program.
Fear not, though, the 4-day work week has the full backing of “science”. A team of “experts” at several universities has been working through the details over the last several years. The headline of the article notes that the trials have been labelled “a resounding success”. Of course, the exact same headline was written about the corona vaccines. But I’m sure the experts will get this one right. Right?
The experts in question produced a “global” report that backs the plan. Great. So, they must have tried it out in numerous countries around the world, right?
Actually, no. Only 6 countries were trialled.
But the 6 countries were a representative sample of all nations, weren’t they?
Actually, no. The 6 countries who took part were all the Anglo countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Ok. But they must have taken a representative sample of occupations to prove the idea is capable of being rolled out to all jobs?
Nah. Only professional office jobs were included in the study.
If this sounds like less than rigorous research, consider that the basic premise of the idea is that productivity can remain the same when employees work 20% less. This is an idea which stands common sense, logic and history on its head. Anybody defending it should be expected to go out of their way to prove its veracity and yet here we have a study with holes big enough to drive a truck through.
We see here a repeat of the corona vaccine pattern. Massive claims were made for the vaccine that had no basis in science, logic or history. In a functioning society, the emphasis should be on people making extraordinary claims to provide extraordinary evidence to back them. Clearly we don’t live in that kind of society.
Suffice to say that this research is, pardon my French, complete bullshit. But at least we can see whose interest the bullshit serves. The salaried professional class here in Australia will get to trial the new scheme. These brave innovators, who have only recently had to go through the trauma of returning to the office after working from their couches for the last three years, will lead the way into the new golden epoch.
Of course, it’s only in office jobs that it’s possible to pretend that taking a day off a week can lead to productivity improvements. Tell the foreman in a factory or the manager in a supermarket that you can increase productivity by having everybody take Fridays off and you’ll be laughed out of the building. Common sense is not a strong point of our modern “elites”.
The professor’s article attempts to link the 4-day work week concept with the historical industrial relations disputes which led to the original 40-hour work week. This is yet another obvious error of reasoning. But the difference between the two examples is revealing of a larger pattern that differentiates society now from society back then.
The 40-hour work week was born out of a grassroots movement which saw workers joining together into unions and using strikes and other industrial action to force employers and governments to grant not just a 40-hour work week but other things we now take for granted such as holiday and sick pay. All of this was achieved over a period of decades which allowed society to slowly adapt and correct course as necessary. It was iterative and based in the “real world”.
Since the comparison with the corona vaccines is relevant here, we should also note that the history of vaccines was also iterative and based in the real world. Most people know the story of Edward Jenner and the smallpox inoculation which arose out of real world observation, no high-tech laboratories required. Similarly, Pasteur’s discovery of the attenuated vaccine took many years and ultimately resulted from a laboratory error. Iteration. Observation. Trial and Error. These are the primary factors involved both in early industrial action and vaccine development.
By contrast, the 4-day work week and the corona vaccines were cooked up by academics in ivory towers. The ways things work these days is that such ideas are fed into the propaganda channels of the media. To compete in those channels, the ideas must be accompanied by grand announcements about the wonderful changes they will bring about. You’ve got to sex it up if you want to play in the world of public relations. Completely absent from this dynamic are the aforementioned concepts of iteration, observation, trial and error and that pesky thing called “the real world”.
All these new ideas sound nice as long as you don’t think about them for more than 5 seconds. For example, it may very well be that respiratory viruses, and viruses in general, perform a necessary function that we don’t know about. In the unlikely event that we can come up with a 100% “safe and effective” vaccine that eliminates respiratory viruses, this may cause a set of unforeseeable side effects. The treatment may turn out to be worse than the disease as so often happens in modern medicine.
What about the 4-day work week? Sounds nice. Except that we know that unemployment is linked with all kinds of negative outcomes including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse etc. What if what people really need is meaning. For better or worse, paid employment is one of the main ways we find meaning in our culture. Cutting work hours is not going to help people find meaning, at least, not any meaning that has a larger societal aspect. The whole point of work is that it is communal and exoteric. It is your way of contributing to society. To the extent that humans are social animals that need to feel they contribute to society, reducing work will reduce the meaning people find in their lives.
And this brings us to the crux of the problem that I think really underlies the 4-day work week concept: the lack of meaning in modern work. The 4-day work week denotes a crisis of confidence that is taking place among exactly the demographic that the study focused on: the professionals in Western, and especially Anglo, countries.
This is not a new development. In fact we saw it appear early on in corona with the use of the deeply weird phrase “the new normal”. Corona might have been the first pandemic in history where, instead of fearing for their lives or grieving over lost loved ones, people actually saw an opportunity for a brighter future. But, of course, the people who were talking of the new normal were the very same elites who are now hoping to get a 4-day work week.
Just as calling for a new normal during a “pandemic” is delusional and self-centred, so is wishing for a 4-day work week in the current socio-economic conditions. Right now in Australia we have historically low unemployment and historically high inflation. The rental vacancy rate is the lowest on record while Australia is currently importing the highest number of immigrants on record. Where are all these people going to live? Not in new homes if the recent announcement of the bankruptcy of a new home builder is any indication. This comes on the back of several state bailouts of builders last year. The bankruptcy was apparently caused by labour shortages, inflation and supply chain problems.
Meanwhile, the Victorian Premier jetted off on a trip to China that apparently had something to do with higher education. The Chinese government recently dropped a ban on students travelling overseas to study which means Australia could see tens of thousands of them showing up soon. Presumably, the Premier is trying to get them to come back to Melbourne.
So, we are trying import workers and students to make up for the employment problem, except we don’t have anywhere to house them. Meanwhile, the money they bring will only add to inflation. Cool plan, bro.
This is all the attempted continuation of what I call the immigration-education-real estate axis of evil that has been the cornerstone of Australian economic policy for a good two decades. This policy was already causing problems before corona and those problems are only becoming more acute. The one thing the plan has been good for is to prop up real estate values for investors. And which class is doing the investing? You guessed it – the salary class.
In the middle of all these issues, the same salary class wants to work four days a week. That’s what’s called in the vernacular taking the piss. If the studies are in fact correct and salaried professionals can be more productive by working less, maybe those same professionals could do society a favour and take a 4-day work week in exchange for 4 days of wages. The productivity boost would sure help inflation. They could then go one step further and use that extra free day to work in one of the industries that is crying out for employees at the moment. Maybe they could help build new houses to ease the shortage.
Of course, the productivity gains of the 4-day work week are illusory because in order to increase productivity you must create something of value in the first place. I talked in the last post about the ex-Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, who led the neoliberal economic reforms back in the 80s and 90s. Keating admitted that those reforms hollowed out the manufacturing sector in Australia but, he claimed, those manufacturing jobs were replaced by “service jobs” which paid more and which were more “skilled” because they apparently required university degrees to perform. (The same universities that produce garbage research about 4-day work weeks?)
If we rename Keating’s “service job” to David Graeber’s “bullshit job”, we start to see the problem. I went into detail about bullshit jobs in one of my coronapocalypse posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. The key point to understand is that this wasn’t just some pejorative term that Graeber invented because he didn’t like service jobs. He gave it that title because the people who do those jobs believe that the jobs have no meaning. And if your job has no meaning to you, it follows quite naturally that you will want to do less of it. Doing less of it won’t solve the problem but it will temporarily relieve some of the emotional issues that come from the feeling of meaninglessness.
Much of what is going on with dumb ideas like the 4-day work week and the new normal and the other madness we see in modern society stems from the fact that our “elites” are in an existential crisis and, rather than face the crisis head on, they have sublimated it. This crisis of meaning began with the collapse of the USSR. Our elites were suddenly without a viable external enemy that could keep their worst excesses in check. Maanwhile, the neoliberal reforms shipped all the real jobs overseas leaving western elites with mostly meaningless jobs. This has led to a subsequent breakdown of logic, reason and common sense because we created a society where those things are not required.
All that is about to change, of course. The corona event has precipitated a rapid change in the geopolitical situation. The rest of the world isn’t buying our bullshit anymore. We’re going have to figure out how to start producing things that matter again.
23 thoughts on “The 4-Day Work Week”
I thought that we are already aiming at the 4 hour work week…or at least the 15 hour work week as predicted by John Maynard Keynes. In comparison, 32 hours still look like too much. At least, it would be 8 hours more for binge watching Netflix…
If I would be an employer and somebody would tell me that my employees could get the same work done in 80% of the time, I would try to exchange them for people who get more done in 100% of the time or reduce the salary according to the real effort.
Funnily, I am someone who works in bursts. My customers are often surprised how fast I get things done. Unfortunately, I balance this by goofing around if the pressure is low. So, I would agree that I would be as productive in 80% of the time but I am pretty sure that I am an outlier and not the norm.
Secretface – there are some very interesting issues involved. From my experience working in manufacturing, there is a definite gradation of productivity which seems to map to physical strength. The best worker in the factory was also the strongest because, even with labor-saving tools, strength is still crucial (although I’m sure there are some manufacturing jobs where dexterity is more important). As for overall productivity, there are some small gains from organisation and management, but technology is the main driver of productivity in manufacturing.
In IT and other “knowledge industries”, by contrast, I’ve seen enormous disparity in productivity. We’re talking orders of magnitude difference. But it’s not a difference in technology. Everybody has access to the same tech. The difference is almost entirely with management and organisation. So, to find the problem you have to go right back to organisation type. But managers are never going to ask those questions because that would mean admitting that they are the problem and potentially making themselves redundant 🙂
Yeah the work I do is so outside of any of this conceptually it’s barely relatable. ‘Work hours’ doesn’t have really any meaning, it’s more this is your life and that’s what you do. Sometimes if you calculate it it works out as a farmer you are earning negative dollars per hour, but then there are times of year when there isn’t too much to do. Other times you have to work all through the night. And then most of it is actually outside your control. Weather can ruin the whole years work. Control freaks need not apply.
It seems fitting that potentially many of these salaried jobs might be automated away themselves, as it’s always seemed to me a lot of them can be done by a computer. Even Lawyers and Doctors could be automated away, Judges and nurses not so much. I worked in the legal profession for a while and a large proportion of the job was filling out forms pre made by the computer and charging clients insane prices for doing so.
Skip – I think many small business owners have the same dynamic. If you really sat down and calculated the numbers, you wouldn’t like what you saw. But running a small business is intrinsically meaningful and that makes up for it.
I think a big part of the reason professional jobs could get automated away is because most of them have become so overburdened with excessive regulation that the practitioners no longer have any autonomy to do good work anyway. Bureaucracies are machines and so they can easily be replaced by machines. For the same reason, bureaucracies are also incapable of fostering creativity and empathy. They are good at control, however, or at least the illusion of control and that’s why governments like them. Might not be a bad thing for professionals to get thrown under the bus by automation. Then they can use their intelligence to get to work coming up with whatever replaces our current shambolic systems.
I work in IT and I can confirm the differences in productivity. I once had one of my colleagues join one of my projects. To ease him into the project, I first gave him some very easy tasks. He was so slow that I estimated to work at least ten times faster than him.
In addition, my customers complain a lot about the work outsourced to India. The IT workers there are quite cheaper than German workers but due to issues like productivity and cultural differences it seems like no money is saved in the end.
My thoughts as well. Shovel enough bullshit at an unwilling buyer, and sooner or later, they might take steps towards discontinuing the supply of bullshit.
Honestly, I do wonder whether the realms of academia produce an outcome for society which favours the production of strategies, over that of goals? Dunno, but I have been wondering about that issue for quite a while now.
It reminds me of many years ago when running a graduate program for a big corporate. One of the newbies had a background in audit, whereas the work itself involved getting stuff done. It was fascinating to see the divide with the persons self belief (based on years of being pumped up in audit) versus their actual skills. I let them down gently, and in the end they themselves understood the difference. A bit of fallout for them, but that’s life.
Secretface – yeah, I’ve never seen an outsourced project to India work well and I’ve seen several fail totally. I think that’s because the main difficulty in IT is understanding the requirements properly and that is not a technical skill. Even very skilled programmers who know coding inside out can struggle in that area.
Chris – it is quite impressive how academia just happens to produce exactly the research that furthers the interests of certain groups in society. It’s part of the magic of money. People have an uncanny ability to understand the interests of the person handing over the cash.
Well, the fact of the matter is that in the contemporary West, there simply isn’t that much productive work available to human beings. Some of this is due to automatization, and some of it is due to outsourcing. If you still insist on having a large chunk of the population “work” full time, then you’re basically obliged to make an awful lot of people do an awful lot of bullshit. It may well be that giving people a lot more unstructured free time wouldn’t be particularly helpful, but there are ways to structure time in ways that don’t involve quite so much bullshit. It’s hardly surprising that people who are forced to do bullshit want to do less of it!
And don’t tell me that people who currently do bullshit could just quit and get a “real job.” If only! There aren’t enough “real jobs” to go around, most people with bullshit jobs lack the skills to do real jobs in any case, and our contemporary Western culture has (stupidly, catastrophically) decided to award low status and poor wages to most people who do real jobs, while giving most of the income and status to people who perform bullshit. No, this is not going to end well. We can probably expect something at least as disruptive as the 1990s in Russia, and it may well get worse than that. In the meanwhile? I really don’t know.
Irena – at least here in Australia, there are currently a lot of “real” jobs that are vacant. I know of an older man who recently shut down a small manufacturing business because he couldn’t find anybody to work. Meanwhile, there’s new home builders going broke because of labour shortages. The army can’t fill anywhere near its quota. In some Australian states they are even using foreign police now because nobody wants to join the police. There’s nurse and midwife shortages. The list goes on. You’re right, though, most of these jobs pay poorly compared with the average bullshit job so it’s understandable that people would choose a higher paying and higher status job.
Lemme guess: relative to the number of bullshit jobs being done, the number of real-job shortages are tiny.
But the main problem really is that real jobs are, for the most part, low-status/low-pay. You cannot expect a large number of social mammals to volunteer for a decline in status…
Just out of curiosity: can you say “financial engineering” out loud and with a straight face? I confess I never could.
Irena – probably. But there’s an interesting graph here https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/labour/jobs/job-vacancies-australia/latest-release
If you scroll down a little bit, you can see that job vacancies have more than doubled since the start of corona. Are people quitting “real” jobs or bullshit jobs? It’s impossible to know but anecdotally it seems to me that real jobs have been more affected.
By the way, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are currently doing a little bit of geopolitical financial (re-)engineering. Interesting times ahead.
Where I live there is currently massive shortages in many hands on trades and professions, especially things like Diesel mechanics and machinists. I understand nursing and policing having no takers because the job puts insane demands on you, no matter how good the pay is.
I think it’s actually a more subtle and complex thing that could be going on where because of our underlying energetic and economic predicament it’s actually really difficult to make money in general as the costs of doing business are so high, unless your are hooked up to the government spigot, which in Australia is funded in the most part by our huge resource sector (always gives me a chuckle when said people complain about said resources sector). It’s become a bit like Saudi Arabia, where it’s only those that are employed either directly or indirectly by the government that are doing well. This includes all the building trades which are heavily subsidised in a roundabout way.
So as constraints kick in and the squeeze is put on, people are retreating to the safety of the devouring mother, whether those jobs are bullshit or not.
Skip – I’ve just finished reading a fascinating article that proposes that this is caused by currency and trade deficits. I might write a full post about it next week but the short version is that when you run a trade deficit you reduce local manufacturing. That causes unemployment. You can try and live with the unemployment or find a way to kickstart the economy. Given that the price of capital goes to zero in this scenario, there’s essentially free money that can be used to try and kick things into action. Because all the goods and services that are of real value are imported from overseas, the free money inevitably flows into speculative ventures and creates bullshit jobs. Competition for the money is not based on the real economy but on who can spin the best bullshit story to get their hands on the venture capital. Hence, you get untested pharmaceutical products, useless IT startups, financial engineering (thanks Irena) etc.
Yeah Chad Haag over on his YouTube channel has talked a lot about this in that what the free money is looking for is the best social justice story and is rewarding that rather than anything of particular economic usefulness. Silicon Valley bank encapsulated all of it nicely.
That outsourcing of manufacturing and trade deficits came to exist because of the costs of energy (including wages); it goes where it is cheapest. Australia was in a good position to set up factories right next to our enormous coal deposits and become a bit of a value added manufacturing hub, but we didn’t and instead chose to be a giant mine and paddock. Maybe not having big rivers to use had something to do with it, and our tiny (relative to Asia) population, along with being exploited by bigger imperial players, but it seems we send our cheap energy overseas rather than use it in house to add value.
Skip – if by some miracle a neutral system such as Keynes’ bancor (https://theweek.com/articles/626620/how-john-maynard-keynes-most-radical-idea-could-save-world) could be implemented, it would make a lot of these problems go away. It would also get rid of the insanity that is going on right now as the US deep state desperately tries to cling on to a system that has no future. Still, looks like they’ll keep pushing til the US dollar crashes and then it’s anybody’s guess what happens after that.
Simon – so I take it Austrelians no longer build houses too? It seems Israelis are getting less and less handy, and most cobstruction projects here employ Turks, Chinease, and other foreign workers.
This is a shame, because I think construction is both a meaningful work, and it can also create a sense of community that is so lacking in the west.
During Covid I fled to the Golan heights. At first people in town did not trust me, being from central Israel, and in general Covid attracted all kinds of loons to the countryside.
I remember one of the things that made people start open up to me is that one of the younger people got married and was building a small house from scratch (as I said, increadibly rare for Israelis). I volunteered to help him out. The “construction crew” was his dad, who provided most of the know-how and guidence, the person’s closest friends and… me. I am still in touch with him, and often when I come to visit and we sit in his house we reminise about building this house.
I honestly think we as westeners should start building our own houses again.
Bakbook – totally agree with you there. When I was a kid, my father built the house we lived in. I was too young to contribute much but I do remember helping to demolish the existing house which was an old two bedroom shack. That was fun. I recently did a full renovation on the house I currently live in. There is a certain peace of mind with knowing how everything hangs together and also with being able to create the house exactly how you want it.
As with everything else, the regulations around building your own house have now become so onerous in Australia that it makes the process very difficult. This is all done on purpose, of course. If you have a government that wants to maximise GDP, then all production must be moved into the monetary economy. Informal production like building your own house doesn’t get counted in the official statistics. Therefore, it has to go. Meanwhile, we get an epidemic of isolation and loneliness which then means government spends more on “mental health”. Cool, more GDP.
Hopefully the number of people dropping out of paid employment is a sign that this ridiculous system is coming to an end.
Simon – do manufacturing jobs add meaning to workers’ lives, or is that a question of temperament? I think my dad would’ve loved to work four days a week instead of six, if the wages had been enough to live on. He found meaning in gardening & creating whatever was needed or wanted w/ his metal- & woodworking skills. His shop steward role gave him a sense of purpose – different to meaning. But he seemed pretty damn happy when he retired. Same could be said for my partner’s dad, who worked in the same industry, & is still productive crafting first-rate furniture at age 96.
Shane – good question. Ironically, the people who would most benefit from a 4-day week are people who work in manufacturing since it would be less stress on their bodies. I think the one thing about manufacturing is that you produce something of value. It’s very rare for a manufacturing firm to stay in business if it does not actually produce something that is needed by society. This gives manufacturing jobs an inherent satisfaction. By contrast, bullshit jobs are by definition meaningless and, in my opinion, meaninglessness is a far worse burden than physical strain. As Nietzsche so aptly put it: when people have a why, they will put up with almost any how. When people don’t have a why? Well, look at the state of our society 😉
Simon – totally get what you mean re the difference between bullshit jobs & actually making things people need, like cars, but assembly-line work (compared to, say, building houses; working outdoors, for decent pay) is deadening, it’s not just the body that suffers but the mind &, for some, the soul/spirit. Sure, repetition can be meditative, but how much deafening automated machine noise does a person need? As for the why, is it a need to contribute to society or just to earn enough to feed a family? I see a lot of people who find meaning (or at least seek it) through becoming parents or owning a dog. In fact, I’d go so far as to speculate that the exponential rise of bullshit jobs isn’t wholly unrelated to the explosion of dog ownership in affluent neighbourhoods (the latter trend precedes Covid).
Shane – I once worked a summer on a production line. I thought management actually did a pretty good job making the work as interesting as possible. We got to rotate around to different parts of the plant and there were even some jobs that were almost fun like remote control driving a trolley that would collect pallets of boxes (or send a pallet of boxes crashing to the floor if you screwed it up).
I agree there’s all kinds of ways to find meaning in life. Paid employment would not be at the top of my list of meaningful things. But if we have to do it, why not make it as meaningful as possible.
Simon -I think there are different types of people that derive meanings from different things, so a society is more like chess pieces and less like checkers, so the well meaning effort to divert every western to a nice bullshit job is akin to a chess player who treats all of his units like a pawn.
This assumption we all want the same things out of life is so ingrained on western society even the most radicals sometimes fall for this – by trying to start communities with the same types of people.
This creates a situation where in the long run many will get resentful they have to do what is in their mind meaningless chors. Since the same personality will typicaly be attracted to particular jobs, some jobs would be sought after while the other seen as busy work.
But when you have a variety of personalities in the same place, everyone would find their niech. Plato wrote about this in the republic. His theory about the casts society is divided into is actually a little archatypical – the warrior for example.
Unfortunately, our elites treat society like children who all want to please mom, and conditioning makes this seem like a self fulfilling profecy… Until you ask people what do they actually want, and if they are happy with what they are getting.
Bakbook – agree. This is all part of proletarianisation and with that comes conformity. A good example here in Australia is suburbia.
Historically, every suburban house had a lawn. I know many people who really hate mowing the lawn because for them it’s a meaningless chore. I remember once telling a friend to just get rid of his lawn so he didn’t have to mow it any more. The idea had never occurred to him. Almost every house has a lawn and so your house would look weird if you didn’t have one. And in most places it’s actually illegal to get rid of the grass on the nature strip in front of the property. Because the resident is required to maintain the nature strip, you have to mow the lawn whether you like it or not. Thus, the law itself creates meaningless chores.
Having said that, some councils here are starting to allow different uses for the nature strip, so maybe we are slowly moving away from mindless conformity which will allow people to create their own meaning.