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Automation on the Job

Computers were supposed to be labor-saving devices. How come we're still working so hard?

Brian Hayes

Where’s My 15-Hour Workweek?

Keynes’s forecast of growth in productivity and personal income seemed wildly optimistic in 1930, but in fact he underestimated. The upper bound of his prediction—an eightfold increase over 100 years—works out to an annual growth rate of 2.1 percent. So far, the observed average rate comes to 2.9 percent per year. If that rate is extrapolated to 2030, worldwide income will have increased by a factor of 17 in a century. (These calculations are reported by Fabrizio Zilibotti of the University of Zurich in a recent book reassessing Keynes’s 1930 essay.)

Keynes’s promise of affluence has already been more than fulfilled—at least for citizens of wealthier nations. It’s a remarkable achievement, even if we have not yet truly and permanently “solved the economic problem.” If Keynes was right about the accumulation of wealth, however, he missed the mark in predicting time spent on the job. By most estimates, the average workweek was about 60 hours in 1900, and it had fallen to about 50 hours when Keynes wrote in 1930. There was a further decline to roughly 40 hours per week in the 1950s and ’60s, but since then the workweek has changed little, at least in the U.S. Western Europeans work fewer hours, but even there the trend doesn’t look like we’re headed for a 15-hour week anytime soon.

The%20size%20of%20the%20U.S.%20labor%20forceClick to Enlarge ImageOther measures of how hard people are working tell a similar story. The total labor force in the U.S. has increased by a factor of 2.5 since 1950, growing substantially faster than the working-age population. Thus labor-force participation (the percentage of people who hold jobs, among all those who could in principle be working) has risen from 59 percent to 66 percent.

These trends contradict almost all the expectations of early writers on automation, both optimists and pessimists. So far, automation has neither liberated us from the need to work nor deprived us of the opportunity to work. Instead, we’re working more than ever.

Economists reflecting on Keynes’s essay suggest he erred in supposing that people would willingly trade income for leisure. Instead, the commentators say, people work overtime to buy the new wide-screen TV even if they then have no time to enjoy it. Perhaps so. I would merely add that many who are working long hours (postdocs, say, or parents of young children) do not see their behavior as a product of conscious choice. And they do not think society has “solved the economic problem.”

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