Why Are We Still Working So Much?

Ever wonder why it is, with all the advances in technology in recent years, we are all still working so damned much?  The old 40 hour work week hasn’t changed in our lifetimes and most salaried or self-employed individuals work far more than that on occasion.  Oh, we may not be doing as much physical labor but, for most of us, work is exhausting and takes up far too many of our waking hours.  So what’s the deal?

To try and answer that question will require a bit of (very) basic economics.  Imagine our distant ancestors.  We don’t really have to imagine their day to day struggle to survive because there are still people around the world who are living that way.  For these individuals, most every waking moment is invested in the business of survival.  They grow or gather their own food, provide their own shelter and educate their children.  There is little time for leisure or the arts.  When an individual or group of individuals is in that position, only the most basic needs are met.

And this leads us to a central tenet of economics:  that the true cost of anything is the opportunity cost.  In other words, the cost of any activity (say composing a piece of music) is all the alternatives to that activity (building a hut or hunting rabbit.) In subsistence societies, the cost of most any leisure time is liable to be malnutrition, sickness and possibly death.  But why is modern society so different?  For one thing, we have learned to be more efficient in the production of our basic needs.  Some of that is simply better techniques but much of it through the application of technology.

The history of, for example, the United States is that, year after year, we are producing more and more food with fewer and fewer farmers.  In other words, we no longer use very much time as a society to produce the food we need.  That means that time is freed up for other purposes.  We can now afford to have people who do nothing but compose music or play basketball.  We have the time to master science and create amazing devices like smart phones and space ships.  And we have much more time to simply relax and enjoy our friends and family.  

So we are wealthy, not because we have more money, but because we have so much time.  Remember the opportunity cost.  Now the cost of composing music is not being able to watch Netflix instead of not eating.  Big difference!  And the historical data down through history is clear.  The average work week has been declining for centuries and that makes perfect sense.  But not recently.  With all the advances in computers and automation in the last few decades alone, you would think that the work week would have declined dramatically.  But many people are actually working more.

Some of this is likely pure greed, not that there is anything wrong with that.  If a business can make its workers more efficient, it isn’t likely that those workers will reap the lion’s share of those advances.  They may see some increase in pay or somewhat easier working conditions but are also likely to have more responsibility.  Technology now may make it possible for one person to do what once took two.  And you wonder why you are worn out on Friday!  

But some of it is structural.  We have built our economy around the idea of a 40 hour workweek.  Certain job related benefits require full time employment, which is usually considered to be around the 40 hour mark.  We expect to work those hours and are usually not taken seriously as candidates for advancement if we aren’t willing to “put in the hours.”  It just doesn’t seem right that we might only work 30 or 35 hours, even though most of would accomplish as much or more in that time frame than we did in 40 hours just a few decades ago.

But mostly we work so much because, apparently,  we want to.  If more leisure time and a shorter work week were really important to the average person, it is likely we would have seen changes.  Instead, we seem to prefer to have more things (and maybe more debt) rather than more time.  Who wants to spend more time with the wife and kids anyway when the opportunity cost is not driving a new SUV or having a new iPhone?  Because the opportunity cost of a shorter work week is going to be fewer things, at least in the short run.  So far, we seem to have decided that that cost is too high.

As always, thanks for following along.   If you enjoy what this blog, tell a friend or two.  Until next time, have a great week!

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