Russell and Keynes Ride Again

Few things sound more southern California than “Let’s shorten the workday to have more time to surf!” But shortening the workday to boost productivity and improve the company? That’s pretty counterintuitive.

This item in the Guardian today is a brutal read if, like me, you struggle to digest the passive voice or the word “paddleboard.” I offer it here, however, as more happy evidence of the world waking up to the Big Sausage Energy of the shorter working week.

The article offers a case study of a finance company reducing their working hours (but not their salaries) as an experiment in productivity. Now, New Escapologist doesn’t tend to focus on productivity as a reason to reduce toil (I’d say let’s reduce work so that we can do something else with our time, ideally something that doesn’t involve raiding the screaming Earth for yet more “materials”) but if that’s how we can get the grindstone boys on-side, then that’s fine.

I also find the “experiment” element of this story impressive: they tried it for 90 days, vowing to keep the new system if it worked. Every good thing should start that way, shouldn’t it?

It’s always nice to see Russell and Keynes deployed to good effect:

And we really need to improve work. A century ago, the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the economist John Maynard Keynes argued that by 2000 – eight decades in their future and two decades in our past – we could all be working as little as three or four hours a day. In Russell and Keynes’s lifetime, technology, labor unions, rising educational standards and greater prosperity had reduced the length of the average workday from 14 to eight hours a day. They thought that as technology continued to advance through the 20th century, productivity could continue to rise, economies could continue to grow and working hours could fall further.

But Russell also warned that while “modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all”, if productivity gains and profits were hoarded by factory owners, executives and investors, those same advances could be used to create a world that offers “overwork for some and starvation for others”. That’s not a bad description of work today.

The article is on side. Thanks, Guardian. The comments are unusually encouraging too: lots of love for work reduction and teleworking, plenty of people defending the (i.e. our) critique of the work ethic.

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About

Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at www.wringham.co.uk/about.

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