Why tech 'productivity' is a lie — and it will never reduce your working week
Google CFO Patrick Pichette's resignation letter — in which he recounts "30 years of nearly non-stop work" — raises a really interesting question about tech, productivity, and free time:
Why is it that a man who works at Google — the most technologically advanced company on the planet, a company that offers a vast range of productivity apps to help you work faster and do more with less — has so little time off?
All that tech should have made him so efficient, saved him so much time, that he could have worked less. But it did not.
Pichette says he spent those three decades working at "a frenetic pace for about 1500 weeks." He didn't even spend much time with his wife, he says. "Tamar and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. When our kids are asked by their friends about the success of the longevity of our marriage, they simply joke that Tamar and I have spent so little time together that 'it's really too early to tell' if our marriage will in fact succeed."
This isn't about Pichette or Google, of course. It's about all of us. Why do you and I have so little time off?
"Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week"
History shows that one of the main dynamics in capitalist societies was that over time the working day and the working week got shorter. Here's a brief summary, culled from a variety of historical sources, including the "working time" section of Wikipedia:
- In the 1800s, it was common for workdays to be 12 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days of the week. (If you're a fan of Downton Abbey you'll see a re-enactment of this: the servants — the only people in the show with actual jobs — have to get up before their masters and only go to bed after they're asleep, every day.)
- The Factory Act of 1874, raised the minimum age of work for children to 10 years old, and began a wave of new laws that restricted work largely to adults within certain maximum hours.
- In 1919, the International Labour Organization Convention established an "hours of work" standard that the standard working week should be 48 hours. The standard was widely adopted.
- Just after World War II, the standard was improved: The working week would become about 40 hours long, or eight hours on five days of the week.
- And then ... nothing.
For the following 70 years there has been basically no improvement. Some countries — France and Holland — have slightly reduced the working week to nearer 35 hours. (A more pronounced effect is that the hours of the average working week have fallen only because so many people are in poorly paid part-time work, or are unemployed.)
For full-time employed people, time has stood still: everyone is tied to their jobs for five days a week, just as we were after the war ended.
This is not a trivial problem. The economist John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, believed the future would deliver "three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week."
Tech is not saving us time
Tech entrepreneurs repeatedly promise that their companies will save us time.
Tech makes everything more efficient, more productive, and faster. For instance, there is now a company that makes an app called Callr that promises to save you the time previously spent dialling into a conference call and fussing with the code number. That is a tiny amount of time to save, but apparently there is a market for it.
Back in 2007, remember when iPhone and Android came onto the market? The promise was, "Think of the time you'll save being able to answer email on your phone!"
The reality has been that work has extended massively beyond the eight-hour day. People routinely answer emails from their bosses at night, or on the weekends, or even on their "holidays."
What if capitalism is destroying the working class?
Back in 1994, the French Marxist Andre Gorz wrote a short book, "Farewell to the Working Class," in which he made a startling observation. (Or at least, a startling observation if you're a Marxist). Capitalism was not, as Marx predicted, creating an ever-larger working class. It was doing the opposite: It was using technology to destroy the working class. Robots were replacing industrial workers, and computers — still a relatively new device in 1994 — were obviously going to replace office workers.
It looked as if we were teetering on the brink of an era of mass unemployment in which companies simply didn't need that many workers.
According to Gorz's calculations:
In the course of this [20th] century, productivity (i.e. output per hours of work) has risen twelve-fold. Since 1936 and the law establishing a 40-hour week in France, it has almost quadrupled. But the number of working hours has not fallen noticeably.
The two-day workweek
Gorz proposed that rather than distributing the rewards of increased productivity merely in the form of rising wages, that it should be partially distributed in the form of free time. Pay rises should be distributed in the form of one-third cash to two-thirds free time. Using this 5% growth rate, Gorz calculated that as long as there was rising productivity from tech, the working week would decline according to this schedule:
- Decline from 40 hours per week:
- 35 hours per week over a period of four years.
- 30.5 hours per week after a period of eight years
- 26 hours and 40 minutes per week after 12 years
- 20 hours per week after 20 years.
That, Gorz concluded, held out the tantalising possibility of a two-day work week within our lifetimes:
By the year 2001; and if we take vacations and public holidays into account, [that] ... corresponds to two days work a week over a year, or nine days' work a month, or five months' full-time work at today's rhythm followed by seven months free.
Two days work per week! Needless to say, it didn't happen.
So why doesn't the increased productivity of tech actually deliver increased productivity, in the form of the ability to do the same amount of work — or more — in less time?
This chart from a paper by John Pencavel at Stanford University, puts the productivity question in some perspective. Those two lines are two different measures of productivity:
In both measures, by about 50 hours a week, your productivity is starting to rise more slowly. Once you're working 65 hours a week, it's not just growing more slowly — it's stalling or actually falling. Tired, burned out workers just don't make any more productive work.
So even though organised labour movements reduced the working week, modern employers aren't too bothered about it. They're not likely to make much more money from you if they work you for six days a week or 12 hours a day. But they will mind if you want to stop working at 20 hours per week, since you'll still be very productive for another 20.
To recap, even though anyone carrying around a smartphone today gives you more computing power than NASA sent to the moon in 1969, that device has not liberated us from work. We don't have any more free time. All those phones and laptops and tablets and free wifi have not left us with any more time that we can really call our own.
We're being paid in cash but not in time
Workers have benefited too, of course. We have better phones, better TVs, better cars and better houses than we did in Keynes or Gorz's time. No one really wants to return to the past. An unemployed person in Liverpool today lives a thousand times better than a king in the Middle Ages. (Case study: My grandmother's house was in Southern Wales. We dreaded visiting her in the winter because she did not have central heating. Two rooms were heated from an open fire. Take it from me, the past was awful.)
Rich enough to buy time
Sure, a few years ago you could have worked 40 hours a week and enjoyed the benefit that your boss would not be able to bother you on the weekend. But people want to buy the things that make them more productive. The phones, the iPad, the laptop. They want the money to buy them, and you can only get that by giving up your time.
Or, as Pichette, the Google CFO, found out, all your time. It's notable that Pichette was only able to leave work because he became rich enough to buy some free time.
Good for him.
But somehow, capitalism has robbed the rest of us of something precious, which cannot be saved indefinitely.