Sorry status quo fans: Less work is the future

Less work is making people more unhappy. Apparently. Does that sound right to you?

Of course not. In a column for Bloomberg, economist Allison Schrager begins her argument with the wispiest of strawmen, by claiming that despite trends like “quiet quitting” and four-day weeks, Americans are more burned out than ever. Not only is she wrong – Americans are actually reporting less burnout and those with the most flexible schedules are the least stressed – but Schrager has confused the symptoms with the self-treatment.

People are working less (or desire to) because they are burned out – not, as she argues, that less work is causing burnout. Indeed, the recent UK four-day trial that she criticises actually reveals significant reductions in burnout, stress and anxiety. That’s despite average hours worked falling not by a full day but by a mere four hours.

All of this, the early evidence to date suggests, is done without any loss to productivity or income; whether that holds up in the long term remains to be seen. But it makes sense that we can do more for less, thanks in part to technology. After all, Slack and email and laptops and Zoom and collaboration tools promise to boost productivity, so logically that should allow a small reduction in hours without damaging profits.

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Just supposin’

Burnout is not all Schrager gets wrong. She claims to worry that less-well-paid workers won’t be able to cut their hours as the 20% reduction in pay would be too much to bear. However, the UK four-day trial held pay at 100%. That’s a fundamental part of the four-day campaign: fewer hours but on the same salary.

It’s true that quitting work doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. Consider recent retirees: many report feeling adrift with their newfound freedom, unsure how to spend their time. (I’d argue that having more personal time during their earlier life to build friendships, hobbies and other time-fillers would help ease that transition. They’d know what to do with themselves the day after their leaving drinks.) Working women in the UK spend an average 7.5 hours a week on housework, so cutting their paid-for work hours in favour of more time for unpaid work isn’t necessarily going to spark joy.

But Schrager forgets that work isn’t just what we’re paid for and wonders why we’re more burned out than previous generations who toiled for longer hours. It’s easy to answer: the number of dual income households has more than doubled since the 1960s she’s so nostalgic for. That means average hours worked across households is higher, not lower, even with recent work-life shifts. And unpaid, unaccounted for work such as household chores and caring responsibilities haven’t disappeared.

Why are both parents in families now likely to be working? Pay hasn’t kept up. Technology has boosted productivity, but employees haven’t benefited. In the US, average pay has stagnated while CEOs and their ilk have seen income skyrocket – in 1961, CEOs made 15 times what their workers were paid; by 2020, that had lept to 351 times employee pay.

Whatever you want

Personally, I would like to spend more of my time on childcare and paid-for work and spend less time cleaning the house and doing essential paperwork. Of course, I could pay a personal assistant to manage my bills, an accountant to do my taxes, and a cleaner to sort my house. But that would take money. And, as noted, pay hasn’t kept up with technology’s productivity – we haven’t benefited from all this innovation.

No wonder the spectre of less work makes some people unhappy: technology could rebalance those out-of-whack pay ratios, but so far it’s exacerbated it. Technology’s productivity bump is showing in annual results, but if companies have to share the productivity benefits of costly technologies with their employees, the return on investment rate slows. And that makes sales pitches harder and might start to eat into the billions in profit made by Silicon Valley giants.

This is a key time for companies to choose to rebalance. Employees didn’t benefit significantly from the Information Revolution, but the looming impact of AI on work needs to be more equally dispersed. It will naturally boost the coffers of Microsoft, Open.AI and the rest, and help cut costs while boosting revenue at the companies that find useful ways to deploy them. But if office workers once again fail to see some benefit to their daily lives or their pay, expect the current employee upheaval to worsen.

You’re in the driving seat now

There is a reason that hybrid working and reduced hours are trends now, and it’s not just the pandemic – they were creeping into public consciousness well before lockdowns lit the fire. Office-bound professionals wondered why they weren’t using video calling to avoid commutes, why collaboration software was being used by people sitting next to each other on banks of desks, and why productivity tools didn’t seem to cut their workloads. What was the point of all this tech, after all?

Just as computing and then the internet did before them, AI will unquestionably change the world of work. It will destroy some jobs, create new ones, reshape others. We missed opportunities to fix work before, exacerbating burnout rather than eliminating it. Let’s not let it happen again, no matter how unhappy it makes status-quo lovers like Schrager.

Next, read Nicole’s vision of work in 2030.

Nicole Kobie
Nicole Kobie

Nicole is a journalist and author who specialises in the future of technology and transport. Her first book is called Green Energy, and she's working on her second, a history of technology. At TechFinitive she frequently writes about innovation and how technology can foster better collaboration.