In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell published the provocatively titled essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’, in which he made the case for a four-hour workday. The article was written against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with the First World War still in recent memory and fascism on the rise across Europe. Ninety years later, many of his insights remain relevant and provide us with a foundation to start thinking about how to re-structure the global economy in a Covid-endemic world.
The US stock market crash of 1929 sent shockwaves across the globe. In a misguided effort to calm markets after the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell thirteen percent on 28 October, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Other central banks around the world were forced to do the same, due to the international gold standard. This led to a contraction in credit, a decline in international commerce, and a slow-down in the global economy.
The result was rising unemployment and immiseration for thousands. By the end of 1930, unemployment in the United Kingdom, which was still recovering from the aftermath of World War One, had more than doubled, from one million to 2.5 million people. For Russell, this suffering was inane:
‘The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organisation of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small amount of capacity of the modern world. If at the end of the war, the scientific organisation, which had been created in order to liberate people for fighting and ammunition work, had been preserved, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed.’
Russell was not alone in this line of thinking. Keynes’ essay on the ‘Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren’, written in 1930, predicted that by the end of the twentieth century a fifteen-hour work week would be normal—at least in advanced economies like the United States and United Kingdom. Our modern world is far more advanced than the one Russell describes in 1932, and it should be possible through some reasonable organisation to more fairly distribute the work necessary to provide fair comfort to the majority of people. Using the infamous pin factory example, Russell presciently outlines why this might not be the case:
‘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 people can make twice as many pins as before. But the world doesn’t need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everyone concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world… half the people concerned in making pins are thrown out of work.’
Russell has succinctly outlined why, in a system where the private ownership of productive capital—as opposed to cooperative, communal, municipal, or state ownership—is dominant, the profit motive will compel owners to reduce variable costs like labour costs, if improvements in productivity can’t be translated into increased revenues.
Russell in the Modern World
Fast-forward to the 1990s, and Western consumer markets have become saturated. The proportion of UK households with a colour TV, for instance, reached ninety percent by 1990. That means each subsequent TV produced becomes harder to sell, and so productivity improvements to the production of colour TVs can only improve profits through labour cost reduction.
One explicit example of this can be found from Richard Currie, who was appointed CEO of transnational retail corporation Loblaw Companies Ltd in 1988. Currie was tasked with generating ‘profit improvements’, and his strategy for doing so was cutting workers’ pay, on the basis that
‘Profit improvements in the 1990s are likely to come primarily from bottom-line cost reductions and lowered breakeven points rather than from the top-line sales and margin expansion strategies much more common in the 1970s and 1980s.’
Since the 1980s, many corporations have cut labour costs by outsourcing production operations to emerging market economies with less protected labour markets. The tech companies that have come to dominate our global economy in the twenty-first century, like Facebook, Amazon, or Alphabet, have marginal costs that tend towards zero. This means they do not have the same ‘diminishing returns to scale’ faced by formally dominant business models centred around production.
For comparison, the three largest companies in Detroit in 1990 had a combined market capitalisation of $36 billion, revenues of $250 billion, and 1.2 million employees. Compare that to the three largest corporations in Silicon Valley in 2014, with a combined market capitalisation of $1.09 trillion, and similar revenues of $247 billion—but just 137,000 employees.
This reduction in the ratio of employees to profits is partly down to advancements in technology improving productivity, and new business models—but to attribute it to technology and models alone would be a simplification. The greatest beneficiaries of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, according to World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, have been the owners of intellectual and physical capital. The global economy underwent a significant transformation beginning in the 1980s, which saw corporations go from operating at a national to a transnational level via the integration of emerging market firms into global production networks.
The structural power these transnational corporations held over international institutions enabled them to offshore production in order to take advantage of cheaper, less protected labour markets. Simultaneously, they were able to enforce their intellectual property rights (IPRs) and therefore maintain the lion’s share of the profits for themselves via international institutions, like the World Trade Organisation.
Many ‘tech companies’ like Facebook depend on advertising revenues, which are contingent upon their clients being able to supply relatively cheap goods to western markets. This is only made possible through the inhibition of competition from the emerging market (EM) companies who manufacture the products of Western brand names. The exploitation of cheap labour in EMs, combined with the availability of cheap credit for Western consumers to compensate them for stagnant wages, is what maintains the system.
The relationship between productivity improvements and unemployment remains a point of contention for economists and social scientists, with some arguing that technological advancement creates jobs. Others, such as researchers at the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, have found little evidence of this. Those jobs that are being created in the ‘human cloud’ are often referred to as ‘flexible’ or ‘micro-work’, which is a euphemism for low pay with no contract or benefits. And again, these jobs are usually targeted at unprotected workers in emerging markets or developing countries.
Some Back-of-the-Envelope Calculations
There are currently 32.5 million people employed in the UK, with an unemployment rate of 4.3 percent. Assuming these figures are accurate, that means we are operating at 95.7 percent of full employment capacity. As such, a UK economy at full employment would make up around 34 million people. The average working time for a full-time worker in the UK is 36 hours, and according to the ONS, average total weekly hours work done between August to October 2021 were 1,024,400,000. If a zero percent unemployment rate were to be achieved, while maintaining current total hours worked (assuming those are the hours necessary to sustain present levels of subsistence) then using Russell’s logic, 1,024,400,000 hours divided by 34 million people gives a new average of 30.1 hours work per week per person. Not quite a four-hour day—but pretty close to a four-day week.
Is it really affordable for companies that everyone should work a whole day less per week but get the same annual pay? Very much so, at least in aggregate. In October 2021, the average weekly earnings for full-time workers was £586. Assuming this wage cost for employing an additional 1.5 million people per week gives a total of £879 million. Corporate profits in the UK reached an all-time high of £129 billion in Q2 of 2021. With 13 weeks per fiscal quarter, that gives an average weekly profit for that quarter of £9,923,076,923—more than enough to cover that additional wage tab.
Clearly, then, the constraint on full unemployment with a reduced work week isn’t financial. Full employment means higher inflation, which is a conflict of interest with asset owners and financiers, who want low inflation to preserve the value of returns on their investments. Full employment would also mean greater bargaining power for workers.
But there’s another element of labour redistribution at work here, too. These rough calculations assume that the 1,024,400,000 hours worked per week in the UK are productive and necessary hours. But as the late anthropologist David Graeber pointed out in his 2013 article and subsequent book ‘Bullshit Jobs’, much of our economy has become inundated with excessive administrative activities.
The last century has seen the number of workers employed in sectors like industry and farming substantially reduced. Simultaneously, the services sector—e.g. work done by professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers—has increased dramatically, even in the emerging markets and developing countries. Many ‘productive jobs’ have in fact been automated, and while the Global South still employs a large portion of its labour force in agriculture, the number is decreasing—with employment in services increasing by around fifteen percent in Central and Western Africa between 1991-2019.
So what kind of work is socially useful and necessary? The pandemic has shown us that our nurses, doctors, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, posties, and rubbish collectors are all essential. Can the same really be said for management consultants or corporate lawyers? Months of lockdown have shown us the crucial importance of leaving our homes to socialise for our own wellbeing, too, whether that’s while playing sports, while in pubs and bars, or while listening to live music—proof that the workers who enable us to enjoy our leisure activities are also vital.
There’s also an urgent need to build green infrastructure, retrofit existing infrastructure, and start provisioning future care for an aging population—none of which is being attended to adequately by the private sector.
If the private sector is unwilling or incapable of addressing these needs, then a redistribution of wealth is necessary to address them by the public. A recent study by NEF showed that the top five percent of UK families are better off by £3,300 per week, while half of UK families are £110 worse off per year since the 2019 general election. Meanwhile, billionaires have soaked up huge chunks of GDP since the pandemic started, much of which has been squandered on superyachts and personal rocket ships.
Shifting Our Priorities
Not long after Russell published his essay making the case for a four-hour workday, Viktor Frankl published a study in which he diagnosed a specific type of depression prevalent in young people at the time, referred to as ‘unemployment neurosis’. He believed that the neurosis originated in a twofold erroneous identification: 1) being jobless was equated with being useless; 2) being useless was equated with having a meaningless life. His prescription for these patients was to get them to volunteer in youth organisations, adult education, public libraries, and so on.
Wherever these patients filled their time with meaningful activity, their depression disappeared—even if their economic situation had not improved. But why should activities like these be unpaid if they are meaningful and socially useful? There is ample wealth, currently being used in frivolous ways by the super-rich, that could be redistributed to pay for (or improve pay for) this kind of work.
As of August 2021, 8.2 percent of adult social care vacancies were unfilled. The charity organisation ‘Skills for Care’ estimates an additional 490,000 care workers will need to be recruited by 2035 to keep up with the aging population. At present, these jobs are low paid, consist of long days and hard work, and increasingly involve precarious zero-hours contracts. That means a shift toward socially useful forms of work can only come alongside a shift in the way we treat and pay those who do it.
The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to take stock and to radically re-evaluate the way we work. It has also highlighted the manifold inequities that exist within our society. While some can work from home, others are forced into unsafe workplaces. Where some have received record-breaking pay increases, others have seen real-terms pay cuts. Where some have lost livelihoods or the ability to work, others have vastly increased their wealth.
We should talk about a redistribution of work alongside a redistribution of wealth. Russell was right to call for more of the ‘idleness’ that would allow us to live happier and healthier lives, but the drastic changes in the labour market over the past ninety years have raised new questions about the types of work we value as a society, too. Questions of ownership are central to sharing work more fairly among the population—preventing a situation in which some work damagingly long hours, while others are left unemployed. Technically, financially, this change is possible. The problem is, as always, a political one.