Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Bosses Are Wasting Our Time

In a society where a third of workers think their job is meaningless, an alternative to constant toiling in unproductive work is urgently needed: it's time to demand a four-day week.

A recent poll found a third of Britain's workers believe their job is meaningless.

Do you clock off on a Friday feeling like your nine-to-five has made the world a better place? Spend the working week with a guiding sense of purpose? Believe that your job works towards a goal bigger and more important than you?

If you’re finding it hard to say ‘yes’, don’t worry: it’s not just you. New polling by YouGov has found that around 11 million people in the UK — a third of the entire UK workforce – think their job doesn’t ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’.

It can be easy to gloss over this. After all, many of us have often become well-accustomed, at least at some point in our lives, to waking up and commuting to a job we’d rather not do, and which we think the world probably wouldn’t miss if we didn’t. Finding out that a third of our tube carriage are thinking the same thing, however, is still unlikely to elicit much more than a resigned shrug.

Under capitalism, we’re used to confronting the extraordinary through the prism of the mundane. But in a different world, the revelation that one in every three people spends the majority of their waking life doing something they deem utterly meaningless would spark mass public outrage:‘what sort of life is this to live?!’ It would be the crisis point from which we, instead, decide to find ways to spend our precious time on the planet doing things we actually consider important.

However, as it stands, we sigh and head back to work. Again.

Long Hours

A century ago, it was far from an eccentric or radical opinion to predict that modern, twenty-first-century societies would have surpassed the need for significant swathes of their population to work a 40-hour week, doing jobs they considered meaningless or unfulfilling.

Back in 1930, the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the turn of the millennium, the working week would have fallen to around 15 hours — leaving plenty of scope for individuals to spend their lives doing more important things. Labour might still be alienating, but we’d nevertheless be doing a fair bit less of it.

Keynes was writing at a time well before the productivity improvements brought by technologies such as the internet, only shortly after the invention of the motor car, and when the majority of UK homes did not have electricity. In the near century since, we’ve unleashed productive forces beyond what even Keynes could have imagined — we inhabit an entirely different world — but we’re still stuck with almost the same working week, filling our lives with meaningless labour. Where did the liberation promised by technological progress go?

As David Graeber argued back in 2013, it can feel ‘as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working’. On the one hand, the promise of automation and improvements in productivity — far from reducing the burden of necessary labour — have been put to work in capital’s favour in the form of greater profits. On the other, we’ve seen the mass expansion of what, in Graeber’s famous phrase, are no more than ‘bullshit jobs’: ones that, even by their occupants’ own admission, are ‘utterly meaningless, contribute nothing to the world, and… should not really exist’. It’s telling that his stereotypical ‘bullshit jobs’ — ‘private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs… [and] legal consultants’ — are almost exactly those that the YouGov survey found the highest rates of those considering their jobs meaningless (53 percent of those in retail and financial services).

Taking Back Our Time

The demand to shorten the working week without any reduction in pay — one of the labour movement’s oldest — has seen a resurgence in prominence over recent years, especially following the continued success of four-day week pilot schemes in the UK and around the world.

While much focus has rightly been placed upon the business case for shorter working hours (given the evidence for positive effects on productivity and worker wellbeing), as well as the strong environmental benefits of reducing working (from reduced emissions to enabling more sustainable life patterns), we mustn’t forget that, in the context of late capitalism, the four-day week is also a potent demand to ‘cut the bullshit’.

Introducing legislation for a four-day week rollout into the US Senate last month, Bernie Sanders noted how ‘American workers are 400 percent more productive than they were in the 1940s… [but] almost all of the economic gains from these technological achievements have been going straight to the top’. Reducing working hours is therefore a form of restorative justice, giving back to workers their share of the lost gains to which they have always been entitled, but we shouldn’t lose sight of it as a call for a more rational economy: why continue with the long hours of meaningless wage labour when there is so much else we could be doing?

Four day week: cut the bullshit. We’ve got more important things to be getting on with.