Time Bandits: The Forty-Hour Work Week by Alan Wescoat

As I sit here composing, my computer is chugging away, doing my work for me. At this moment, this machine supplied by my employer is performing calculations every minute that fifty years ago could not have been performed in a week by a team of mathematicians. Some of you may be wondering why I have a job at all if the computer is doing the work. I'll level with you: the computer couldn't do what it is currently doing before I started programming it. So yes, I did my work a while back. Now it's just all going through the motions.

Last week, I have the privilege of conversing at length with my mother. (Hold on a minute. My computer has completed its automated task. Now its time to give it another automated task as well as check on the other computer I have doing my work for me.) Anyway, my mother was discussing a mutual friend who works in the oil fields of G-Town. Oil field workers have very long schedules, often working 70-80 hours per week. When people are pushed like this, eventually something has to break. Many of these workers claim to love the overtime pay but are clearly suffering when they ease their bruised and worn-out bodies into an easy chair for the evening. Like I said, eventually something has to break. Recently one of the oil companies of G-Town noticed that their productivity was very low. This is bad news for employers who pay more than half of their relatively high wages in overtime pay. The work week for most employees was cut to the standard 40 hours. Guess what happened. Productivity went up. I don't mean that productivity per hour went up. I mean that overall productivity went up. The workers were accomplishing more in a 40-hour week than they had been in a 70-hour week. Go figure.

I have long been struck with the thought that there is something fundamentally wrong with the 40-hour work week. As a child, I was poignantly aware of the capacity for technology to reduce the burden of human labor. The human race has evolved to the point that we have machines for almost everything. Machines cook our food, wash our laundry, move us across vast distances, and we even have machines like the one I am using now to manipulate information for us. Egad! Why the hell are we working so damned much? Forty hours per week is truly an absurd amount of time to spend in devotion to one's employer. In France, they had the same idea. The standard work week was recently cut to 35 hours. This is still about five to fifteen hours too long in my book, but it's a start. I have heard that other countries have shortened their work weeks as well. I couldn't find any other info on the web. If you are aware of any other countries with shorter work weeks, please let me know.

Back to the question: Why the hell are we working so damned much? I will make a very strange claim: if most people cut down their work weeks by twenty-five percent, we would notice no significant difference in productivity. That is, we wouldn't notice a difference. The fat cats on top of the economic chain would definitely notice. In fact, they might even have to do a little work themselves. Capitalism has many advantages over most if not all other economic systems. It breaks down, however, when everything is subsumed in the quest for profits. Capitalism becomes a perverse economic system when it enables those on the top of the chain to exploit those on the lower end beyond reasonable measure (with the admission that a little exploitation might be useful and beneficial if not necessary). Capitalism is a system that is very good at making a very select group of people very very rich while keeping the rest of the population at levels that are just tolerable enough for them to think that the system is a really good one.

A shrewd reader will point out that we can't all be rich. At least, we all can't live in opulence, but possibly some people deserve to live in opulence. Definitely, all of us cannot live in opulence. Much of what is valued in human society such as gold, precious rocks, finely crafted jewelry, and other similar silly trinkets are in preciously short supply. Not everyone could afford these things. If everyone could, or even if most people could, the price would simply skyrocket to the point that these things were once again not available to the masses. Indeed, it does not seem likely that there is enough raw building materials on planet Earth for all six billion of us to live in fine mansions. This is reality, and reality will not always provide to us what we think we want. I will skip the bit about what some people might deserve. I think deserve is a pretty fuzzy concept and have spent the last five years analyzing it. I still haven't come to any conclusions.

Anyway, I'm not sounding for material wealth for everyone. Material things are transient and are incapable of providing the spiritual benefits most people try to get them to produce. I'm not concerned here with material things. I'm concerned with the only thing people really have: time. Every minute needlessly spent at work creating profit for someone else is time stolen from your own life. It's time that you could be spending in ways that you see fit and for your own benefit or for the benefit of a needy person rather than for the benefit of someone else who neither needs nor deserves it. Time is all that any of us really have. I don't mind using my time for the benefit of another person. I like people, and I want to help all of whom I am able to help, but to help someone who is already better off than I am is an absurd waste of my resources. I have helped make a fair number of rich people richer in my short life. Through all of this, I have remained quite poor myself. Things are getting much better now that I work for the state, but I am still required to work forty hours per week. That should change.

Throughout the entire time I have been composing this little tirade, my computers has been performing hundreds of millions of calculations. Just try counting to a million. See how long it takes. Finished? I thought not. Have you ever watched a combine harvest corn? The combine sweeps up many rows of corn at once, stripping the ears from the stalks and shucking it at the same time. A single combine can do the work of dozens of people. Baling hay or doing any other farm work can be simplified through machinery in a similar manner. Two people can bale ten acres of hay and hoist it into a loft in a single day using nothing more than a small tractor, a baler, a wagon, and a hay elevator. It used to take many more people putting forth much more effort to accomplish the same work prior to the advent of electricity and the internal-combustion engine.

Why do I bother to point these things out? Well, farm work is the most essential work on Earth as well as some of the most difficult (with a tip of the hat to mine workers whom I will never ever envy), yet through automation this work has become relatively easy. For every difficult task that can be automated, a machine can be built to perform the work. We have done this for almost every kind of essential endeavor. Through machines, the human race has amplified its potential to a tremendous extent. Why then are we still doing so damned much work?

I have already mentioned what I take to be the primary reason for our prolonged agony. Most of us are engaged in the business of making someone else richer than they already are. There are other reasons. Americans have come to expect a high standard of low-quality living. That is, we substitute the time stolen from us by our employers with the material possessions afforded to us by an extensive work week. Just one example of this is that nearly everyone demands their own private means of transport when public transportation would be more efficient. I contend that the convenience of a personal automobile and similar such excesses constitute a poor substitute for ten hours per week that could be spent discovering the mysteries of reality, socializing with good friends, preparing our children for a better tomorrow, or just being.

In addition to material objects being a poor substitute for spiritual growth, the time stolen by our extensive work week takes from us our opportunity to enjoy what we already have. I currently own more comic books than I have time to read. There are videocassettes sitting on my table at home that I rented two days ago. I have three more days with them, but I doubt that I will have time to watch them as I spend eight hours every weekday at work. I own books of origami containing projects I will never have time to attempt, and I have generated more ideas for original paper sculptures than I will ever be able to create. I am being robbed of my life by a system that does nothing to enhance the spirituality of humanity but does much to subvert and denigrate it. Why then do I continue to participate in this system? (By the way, I love my job, but I actually am serving the whole human race with my work every day. It makes me feel really good, but it still take up too much of my time.)

Factors being what they are, I frequently feel that I have little choice in the matter. I can't find a job that pays well and provides quality health insurance while requiring fewer than forty hours per week. This standard is arbitrary. It is a result of forces that came into play during the industrial revolution. The fat cats opposed (quite violently) the formation of labor unions . It was only through coordination of the workers themselves that capitalist exploitation of the masses could be slowed. Since that time, unions have significantly declined in strength, becoming shadowy and corrupted mockeries of what they once were. Few significant gains in labor laws have been made since the 1940's. Only through unity will we overcome the evil forces that largely control our lives.

The human race must demand as a unified whole that our technology and advances be applied for the benefit of the entire human race. For those of you who think that makes me a communist, think twice. If you can conceive of economic reality only in polarized terms of capitalism vs. communism, you have been intellectually shortchanged. As creative and adaptable beings, we have the capacity to create whatever governmental and economic system will best fit our needs through any stage of societal development. Marx was right about at least one thing: the forms of governments and economic systems are a function of historical development. It is time to critically evaluate capitalism, retaining what is good and sweeping away what is bad while using our creative potential as human beings to construct a new and better system of government and economics.

Let's look at some other consequences of having our time stolen from us. Those of you who are parents understand the difficulty of juggling parenthood with making ends meets. Children require enormous amounts of attention in order to grow into well-rounded, socially acceptable adults. If you are like me, you understand how awful it is to spend most of your adult life unlearning the negative lessons of a horrible childhood. I felt continuously resented because my father had trouble making ends meet. I would have much rather gone hungry for days on end than to be struck or to be the recipient of verbal abuse stemming from his frustration with economic reality. With the joys of parenthood comes tremendous responsibility. Imagine what it would be like if you or you and your mate had ten more hours per weeks to spend with your children or perhaps to recover from dealing with them.

For those of you working at McMock-Food "restaurants" (or somewhere similar), let's consider what role your place of employment plays in the grand scheme of things. Really. The overconsumerist mentality requires a couple of things from everyone who desires to be financially independent from others. You must work. In order to earn what constitutes a "living," you must work at least forty hours per week. The reality is that the "at least" in the previous sentence could be changed to "at most." We have the technology. We have the resources. But in order to accomplish this, we must do a few things. We will have to unite. We will have to demand that the fat cats not be so fat. We must also strive to consume less on a personal level as well as encourage others to consume less without being condescending. We will need courage because while much of the strong-arm tactics formerly employed by the monsters in power are regulated by the government, there really are some incredibly evil people who really might order the murders of leaders of people who try to take back the time that has been stolen from them. Yes, there really are people in power who will commit any atrocity to maintain or increase their own power. If you don't believe me, I suggest you seriously examine the atrocities of the twentieth century and then get back to me. You can start by reading up on Stalin (under whose rule approximately 66 million people were murdered).

I have digressed (again). Back to McMock-Food. Let's look at the popularity of these atrocities. They are popular in part because they provide inexpensive "food," but mostly they are popular because they provide their products almost instantly. This is a function of the fact that too much of our time is stolen from us. In some civilized countries, people used to walk home for lunch and walk back to work, taking two hours to do so. This practice enabled the employee to get much-needed exercise as well as necessary nourishment. Modern employers would never condone this. You don't get time for a long walk despite the fact that it would be good for your health. You don't get time for a home-cooked meal. Eat McSchlock instead or brown bag it, but whatever you do, put in your forty hours. Some of you might not get any kind of break whatsoever during your eight-hour shift. Not only is this legal (at least with adults) but people tolerate it.

Because we demand that nearly everyone work so much and because everyone needs to make a living, we are placed in the position of providing meaningless jobs to huge numbers of people. These people are engaged in degrading work with little potential for personal advancement. They serve products with almost no value to people who would be much better off with a long walk and quality food. Additionally, they serve to make the corporate stockholders fantastically rich. Through this labor, their civic duty is somehow being fulfilled despite the fact that the barrier of the required speed and the physical presence of the counter and the cash register bars them from making genuine social contributions through meaningful interpersonal communication. Would we not be better served if these people were busy doing something else like visiting elderly shut-ins or (perhaps) helping out at our schools where meaningful adult contact is in desperately short supply?

I can think of at least a hundred endeavors in which the human race and the individual worker would be much better served than they are by the McSchlock industry. I target fast "food" only because it is an easy target. There are many others. Indeed, I could target Target, Wal-Mart, Big Fat K-Mart, or any other business devoted to selling the products our society deems as suitable substitutes for meaningful interaction (Fast food is easier because it really truly isn't necessary). The point is that we operate within a system created by humans to serve certain human needs. It is perfectly within our power to dismantle or restructure that system to serve the needs we most value. I don't think that we really have that much regard for the wealth monster. It can be ousted in favor of humanism. The first thing we need to do is to decide that we are going to do it.


Alan Wescoat

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