When science fiction was in a nascent phase at the dawn of the 20th century, imaginative authors would provide readers with optimistic (or dystopian) glimpses of a future world.
With the exception of the groundbreaking film Metropolis (in 1927 the first film to use special effects), most sci-fi jaunts offered a tantalising future for the average worker.
Robots and other machinery were expected to take the brunt of all labour. Employees would simply oversee the robot workers, and working hours would fall. Leisure time would increase.
Some authors since even boldly suggested that the concept of work itself would change forever and not even involve work – consider the lazy excuse for a civilization living perpetually aboard a robot-run spaceship in Pixar’s WALL-E.
So why hasn’t this sci-fi dream come true? Why haven’t technological advances rendered the drudgery of the 9-5 to the history books? And is it possible that we don’t actually want to be born into indefinite retirement? Let’s explore these ideas in this article.
Reaping the rewards of technology
Technology has undoubtedly transformed any part of the economy which it has touched.
However, rather than allowing us to produce the same amount of goods and services with fewer workers or hours, we have instead kept the labour force constant and increased the quantity of goods and services produced.
In other words, rather than cutting back on our working hours and maintaining similar living standards, we have continued with standard working patterns and have seen our wealth increase.
This can be easily noted if you have a conversation with living grandparents or parents. As recently as the 1970s, it was unusual for a household to own more than one car. Today, it is common to see one car per working adult.
When the moon landing took place in 1959, most families watched the events unfold on a communal television set. In 2022, we aren’t surprised if the number of device screens in a household outnumbers occupants by a factor of 2:1.
In conclusion, it is clear that the workers of today have access to vastly more goods and services than the earlier generations. We are offered a wider range of higher-quality goods, which can be delivered faster, and brought to market quicker, and all at a lower price.
Why hasn’t technology reduced working hours?
There are several reasons why working hours have remained relatively constant while the quality of life has increased:
Successful marketing maintains endless demand
In the UK, an adult sees an average of 40 ads per day, and the total number of ads across all platforms is far higher. We are constantly bombarded with inducements to buy, buy, buy. This drives dissatisfaction with our current belongings and a desire to buy more. We can only buy an ever-increasing volume of products if we continue to keep our nose to the grid.
The ‘things’ we acquire with higher wages are status symbols
To be successful is often tied to the ownership of luxury goods such as large houses, fast cars and high fashion. These items are in limited supply and therefore their price increases in line with the amount of cash chasing it.
This means that the only constant is the unaffordability of such items. As consumers become more wealthy, the price of housing increases and therefore a more productive worker must still work hard despite earning higher wages.
Full employment provides an incentive to keep us at work
There is a clear political motivation to keep all citizens in work and to continue to grow an economy in size as rapidly as possible.
Larger economies exert greater power on a global scale and have more influence in international affairs. Not least because a larger tax base can fund increases in military and diplomacy spending.
A busy populace is also an orderly and well-behaved populace. The history books have shown that high unemployment and economic strife is usually linked to periods of social unrest, crime and anxiety which any government will want to avoid.
In conclusion, it is unlikely that technology will result in a reduction in working hours. This has not occurred in recent decades and there are persistent reasons which are preventing this from happening.
It is a natural human instinct to want to achieve more, increase social standing and preserve peace. These instincts all drive a culture of working long hours to generate as much income as possible, irrespective of the absolute level of income being produced.