Stop Doing Everything and Start Doing Nothing (the Argument for a 4-hour Workday)
A British philosopher challenges the idea that hard work is good for society.
“A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work … the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1932
I was recently introduced to a fascinating, paradigm-changing essay called In Praise of Idleness, by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). In it, he posits that each of us consume a certain amount of work product over the course of our lives, and that because of technological advances, we should only have to work enough to replace what we consume. Russell suggested this equated to a four-hour workday.
In a time when many Western nations (including the U.S. and the U.K.) were suffering from an economic downturn (post-World War I), unemployment was a major societal issue. Reducing work hours would have provided more people the opportunity to provide for their families, as well as increasing well-being and advancing cultural and scientific pursuits. It’s interesting to note that in the U.S., our current full-time workers average 47 work hours per week, and when this was published in 1932, the average was 48 hours per week.
What’s intriguing about this article is the way it challenges our fundamental assumptions about the value of hard work. According to Russell:
“From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests.”
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since…. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the [workday] had been cut down to four, all would have been well.”
“Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”
Basically, his argument is that technological advances should give us more leisure time.
If that was true almost 100 years ago, how much more leisure time should today’s technology give us? We’re so used to working more than a third of each day that many people feel they wouldn’t know what to do with an extra four-plus hours each day. Apparently, people had the same concerns in 1932. Russell responds that this “is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency.”
He also points out, that by not being exhausted from working long hours, we would be better equipped to pursue physically active pursuits and those interests we have special aptitude for. This would mean we could contribute in a greater way to the world and our communities.
“In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be…. Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits.”
Wouldn’t this be a lovely way to live?