If the robots are indeed taking our jobs, shouldn’t we all probably be working less? A movement is picking up momentum in the United Kingdom based on that very reasonable logic.
On Thursday, a proposal backed by eminent British progressives such as John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor (the party’s chief economic spokesperson), is making the call to transition to a four-day workweek by 2025. As the proposal’s title makes clear, it’s both “a radical and pragmatic proposal”.
The report was prepared by Autonomy, a “think tank rethinking work”, and 4-Day Week, a campaign aimed at securing exactly that. While there are a number of good reasons to reduce the working week — mental health benefits, improved quality of life, even, in some cases, improved productivity — outlined in the proposal, automation is a particularly compelling one.
“We should accept automation as something that does increase productivity and recognise that that’s a good thing in an economy,” Aidan Harper, the report’s editor, founder of 4-Day Week, and a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, told me in an interview.
“It’s just that the proceeds of automation should be shared evenly — in the form of a working time reduction. Machines should liberate us from work, not subject us to this ever-increasing inequality.”
That seems like a perfectly sound point — so why does it seem so jarring in the current sociopolitical climate? Isn’t it odd that there seems to be an endless supply of reports from think tanks and economic organisations and the IMF about how automation stands to eliminate routine tasks, make simple jobs redundant, and transform the future of work — and next to none of them suggest that the workers themselves enjoy any of the benefits?
There was a time, recall — and not too long ago — when automation was supposed to be a utopian force for freeing us from drudgery and long working hours.
This spirit is echoed today mostly in hollow platitudes found in business consulting literature, where it exists mostly for the benefit of soothing an executive who may be leery about the optics of buying and executing automation tools at his company.
Most mainstream study and coverage, after all, positions as foreboding — that is, the robots are coming to take our jobs — because the narrative has so far been controlled by, or in reaction to, the class doing and benefiting from the automating. The “Shorter Working Week” report articulates this tension:
These new technologies are ‘both a promise and a threat’. In the context of the shorter working week, automation holds the promise of reducing work time, thereby opening up the possibility of the maximisation of autonomous time for individuals. However, this link between automation and freedom cannot and will not be facilitated without adequate state and policy intervention. The past century has shown us that automation technologies have more often than not been introduced by employers as a way of simply maximising productivity without sharing the surplus time and/or the profits with employees. This trend will continue unless a practical and enforced link between automation and free time is constructed.
And there is actually a decent chance that link may yet be forged.
“It’s getting a lot of traction,” Harper says. “The aim of the campaign, at its core, is to politicise the idea of working time as something we can change if we wanted to. To create the idea of working time reduction as common sense.”
Unlike in the US, where thus far workers have mostly been forced to see automation as a coming storm and play defence against its encroaching tentacles, a genuine interest is coalescing around fighting to share its bounty in certain corners of the UK.
Shortening the work week is already a topic of conversation in British politics, and a number of politicians, economists and authors have all endorsed this report.
Said report contains practical steps that might be taken — such as parts of the public sector taking the first step in establishing a reduced working week as the norm — and breaks down the misconceptions about the workweek as currently configured.
It cites studies showing that “there is no correlation between long working hours and productivity — a comparison between countries and between firms shows this. Germany is more productive but works fewer hours on average than the UK,” it notes.
As might be expected, opposition primarily comes from executives, the business community, and their conservative allies.
“When you take a historical perspective about this,” Harper says, “it’s very revealing. I found an op-ed, I think it was in the New York Times, from a hundred years ago or so, where the author was attacking the idea of moving to 5-day week from a 6-day week, and it’s literally exactly what the business owners are saying today about a 4-day week.”
All told, it’s a fascinating document with a potent alternative take on how we might approach automation if the conversation weren’t dictated by consultants and executives — by returning more of the agency, power and, crucially, time to workers.
“Automation should be a good thing,” Harper says, “and yet we have this structure, a political and social system around us that makes automation seems like a threat rather than a promise.”