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Salvation through work

Friday 8 March 2013

By Edward Hadas

February 27, 2013

“It has been computed by some political arithmetician that if every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labour would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life … and the rest of the 24 hours might be leisure and happiness.”

When Benjamin Franklin wrote that in 1790, the American thinker was a few centuries ahead of his time. But the modern economy is so productive that everyone would have far more “comforts” than were available in Franklin’s day, even if the standard working week were shrunk from 40 to 20 hours. The four-hour day, though, isn’t on the horizon. Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a professor of Leisure Studies at the University of Iowa, explains why not in a fascinating new book, “Free Time, The Forgotten American Dream”.

For more than a century, labour activists continually demanded – and were granted – shorter working hours. By the 1930s, futurologists were sure that the trend would continue. Workers wanted more leisure time, and, thanks to ever more efficient machines, they could have it, while still enjoying steady improvements in the material standard of living.

The experts were wrong. In 1935, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt moved from favouring to opposing the six-hour working day. That was the beginning of the end. For the past few decades, the standard working week in rich countries has remained constant, or even lengthened. Far more women are in the paid workforce than ever before. A recent attempt to introduce a 35-hour week in France was soon abandoned. It seems that people have had a change of heart regarding the relative value of consumption and leisure. What changed? Certainly not productivity growth. Technological developments have continually saved more labour, much of it tedious or dangerous. The old historic pattern – more leisure time along with more goods and services – could have continued unabated.

Indeed, since Franklin’s “necessaries and comforts of life” were and are available in unprecedented abundance in rich countries, the decision not to work less – so as to enjoy more of the luxury of free time – is especially striking. An additional peculiarity is that most people are do not seem very happy about the move away from shorter hours. Workplace stress and complaints of “work-life” imbalance, especially from parents, are ubiquitous.

The complaints are certainly heartfelt, but very few people actually volunteer to take part-time jobs when full-time – 40 hours a week – is available. What is going on? Many people would say they need the money, but I think the best explanation is not economic, but cultural. People must feel that paid work gives them something which leisure time does not. More hours in the job gives them more of that something.

That something is considered so valuable that it takes precedence over family and fun. The elite in any society always take the largest share of whatever that society considers good. Today’s social elite – in business, finance and politics – compete to work especially long hours, a complete reversal of the traditional association of aristocracy with ample leisure time.

And what is the “something” that jobs provide? It’s partly a sense of purpose: people want to feel useful. And it’s partly social status, which paid work provides in modern societies. In short, the hours in the job make life more meaningful to many workers. Fewer hours are felt to bring less meaning, less fulfilment. At the extreme, unemployment, zero hours of paid work, is generally felt to be demeaning, even if the welfare state ensures that joblessness has little effect on consumption.

The current arrangement of working hours may be a cultural choice, but in many ways it is a bad one. Hunnicutt blames the belief in “Salvation by Work”, the snide description of educator Robert Hutchins, for the decline of nobler aspirations. Hunnicutt hankers for the “higher progress” of each individual, identified by the poet Walt Whitman as the ultimate goal of American society. More prosaically, the new preference has led many mothers away from unpaid but valuable parental labour and into tedious paid work, often actually of little social value. And unemployment rates would be lower if the available hours of work were shared out more evenly.

The bad choice can be reversed, but there is no sign that a change is imminent. I believe what is missing is something basically spiritual: a more modest appraisal of what work can contribute to life. Work is truly good, but other goods should often take precedence. The Benedictine slogan “ora et labora”, work and pray, is a good place to start. Franklin, an atheist, would be appalled. However, while the industrial economy could easily provide his hours of “leisure”, no amount of work can create “happiness”. For that, something more like prayer is needed.

Edward Hadas writes about macroeconomics, markets and metals for Reuters Breakingviews. Before becoming a journalist, he worked for 20 years as an equity analyst in Europe and the US. His book, "Human Good, Economic Evils: A Moral Approach to the Dismal Science" is published by ISI Books in Wilmington, Delaware. He has also written a course-book about political philosophy for the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham. Edward has degrees from Columbia University, Wadham College, Oxford and the State University of New York at Binghamton. He has a website, edwardhadas.com.

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