The Eloi

If you hang around the websites of central planners or read their blogs, you can’t help but notice they are concerned and puzzled by the labor markets. All over the developed world, the number of people working is in decline. The US labor market never fully recovered from the crash. Countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece have unemployment rates reaching 30%. Everyone expected the labor markets to be back to normal by now.

One argument is that technology is eliminating job growth. The warehouse is not adding new people as the business grows, it is adding new robots. This is most certainly true. I know of a few businesses that have doubled their size in the last decade without adding new people. Even mom and pop operations can afford software and mobile devices to automate big chunks of their business. The book The Second Machine Age takes the concept to the extreme, imagining a world without work.

While I’m skeptical about the claims made by futurist, we may be heading into a time of less work. We have been conditioned to accept work as a feature of life. Christianity built it into the religion. Even pagan cults had mystical explanations for why man was forced to toil for food. In modern times when most men do not actually toil in fields, year round work has been the norm for generations. We head into the office in all sorts of weather and under all sorts of burdens.

It was not always so. Hunter gatherers probably only worked 20 hours per week. Fighting and mating took up an equal amount of time. Early farmers did not farm all year long. In northern climates, people had loads of free time from harvest until planting. From spring through fall they worked very long hours, but there were long breaks in there as well. Once the crops are in the ground, there’s not a lot of tending to them so farmers had time off in the summer. Still, farming life was most certainly more time consuming than foraging.

The industrial age brought year round work and crazy long houts to the masses. My grandfather told stories about working as a steamfitter ten hours a day and then night shift as a mill with some weekend work when he could get it. From the 19th century forward, all consuming work with little time off was the norm until we get into the middle of the 20th century. This is the world we have always known, but it may not be the world of the future. This story from Sweden is a possible sign of things to come.

Gothenburg (Sweden) (AFP) – Robert Nilsson, a 25-year-old mechanic in Sweden’s second city Gothenburg, may be the harbinger of a future where people work less and still enjoy a high standard of living.

He gets out of bed at the same time as everyone else, but instead of rushing to work, he takes it easy, goes for a jog, enjoys his breakfast, and doesn’t arrive at his Toyota workshop until noon, only to punch out again at 6:00 pm.

“My friends hate me. Most of them think because I work six hours, I shouldn’t be paid for eight,” Nilsson said, talking while fitting part of a rear window onto a Toyota Prius with swift, expert moves.

Sweden often stuns first-time visitors with its laid-back prosperity, making foreigners wonder how it is possible to have both lots of money and lots of leisure.

Scandinavians are always stunned by how much Americans work. They get over 30 paid holidays a year, while Americans get half that number.

Part of the answer, according to economists, is a productive and well-educated workforce that adapts to new technologies quicker than most.

Exactly how much –- or how little –- Swedes work compared with other nations is a somewhat open question.

“We have a 40-hour work week, but also we have a little more absence than many people and we start work late in life because we study longer,” said Malin Sahlen, an analyst at Timbro, a libertarian Stockholm-based think tank.

In 2012, the average Swede worked a total of 1,621 hours, according to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This is more than the Netherlands with 1,381 hours, but less than Britain with 1,654 hours or the United States with 1,790 hours – and way below Chile’s 2,029 and Mexico’s 2,226 hours.

It also helps to have a nation full of Swedes too. Let’s ship over a few of our Detroits and see what happens.

But far from looking to increase time spent at work, some in Sweden are out to prove that less is more and that cutting hours can boost productivity.

In an international productivity ranking by the Conference Board, a non-profit business research organisation, Sweden was already placed close to the top, coming 11th out of 61 countries.

The United States was third, the Netherlands number five, and Britain number 13, whereas Chile and Mexico were both in the bottom third.

Now, the Social Democrat-led city government in Gothenburg is planning to test the impact of shorter hours on productivity, in an experiment beginning on July 1.

One group of government workers in the elderly care sector are to work six hours a day, while another will work the eight they are used to.

There’s a bit of an undiscussed truth about most work these days. People screw off a lot more than in a previous era. The culture has changed, but having the Internet at your fingertips is the biggest issue. It is simply too easy to goof off at work. You can shorten the work day, but demand the same work product. It’s a trade-off most people would accept.

The thing is we may be reaching a point where we need fewer and fewer people working. If we can have all of the material wealth of today, but have robots doing the work, is that such a bad thing? It would revolutionize social relationships. Think about all the rules, written and unwritten, that are linked to work. Think about how much of our politics is geared to issues related to work. Taxes, jobs, growth, trade labor law, etc.

That’s where the futurists fall on their faces. They always assume people will be the same in the future. It will just be a super high tech version of today. That’s not how it works. As the environment changes, humans change. When our old customs no longer meet our needs, new customs rise up to replace them. A society without work will have vastly different rules than modern society.

Or, we will simply be food for those who still work.

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james wilson
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james wilson

Idleness is the greatest destroyer of human character. By far.