Appeal for a Shorter Work Week

Appeal for a Shorter Work Week November 14, 2012

Capitalism has much to recommend it. In a fallen world where every system is deeply flawed, capitalism has given us Google, penicillin, and time-delay features for our washing machines. But it exacts a high price—security and time.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes’ predicted that within a hundred years, per capita income would rise sufficiently to meet people’s basic needs, and no one would need to work more than fifteen hours a week. In light of our failure to realize Keynes’s vision, Robert and Edward Skidelsky wrote, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life. The Skidelsy’s argue that although income did increase as Keyne’s anticipated, so did an insatiable desire for consumer goods. They explain this as resulting from 1) capitalism’s dependency on the public desire for more goods, for capital to continue to grow, and 2) public failure, both political and personal, to critically examine what the good life might be and how many material goods it would actually require.

Further complications include the consequences of two-earner homes. In The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi show how today’s two-earner homes are less financially secure than the one-earner homes of the twentieth century. In a number of states today, fixed costs are sufficiently high that if one spouse gets injured, or if an ailing family member needs care, or if the couple divorces, they are often propelled towards bankruptcy. Bankruptcy rates have reached record highs.

A number of researchers study how companies can boost productivity and cut costs through various mixtures of flexible time and telecommuting trying to help both companies and employees (the better the employee work/life balance, the higher their productivity—see

A final layer of complexity comes with the changing nature of many jobs. Many have been moved overseas, but others are fast becoming obsolete. A politically conservative friend of mine builds robots and wonders about social solutions as more and more tasks come to be taken over more efficiently by robots. “We might have to come to terms with the fact that some people just won’t work,” he concluded. “We are going to have to figure out how to take care of people whose labor the market does not require.” His odd-sounding insight returned me to wondering about the relationships between work and the good life.

Is replacing much of the workforce by robots the final crisis that could, surprisingly, bring us back to the practice of envisioning and striving for the good life? Like many Americans, Latter-day Saints find themselves torn and ambivalent in this conflicted work climate. Church structure, and leaders’ exhortations, have tried to combat some of the problems I listed above. For members of the Church, a deeply-ingrained ideal of self-sufficiency supports attitudes that favor hard work and professional success. On the other hand, Church leaders have warned members for decades to protect family relationships against overwork. In addition to exhortations at General Conference, there are such examples as not working on the Sabbath, spending Monday evenings with family, and even closing down Brigham Young University for an hour each Tuesday to hear a gospel message in devotionals. Employees at Church Headquarters work forty-hour-weeks, as opposed to the 60-80 hour weeks of their professional counterparts elsewhere in the country.

Like the Skidelskys, I wonder whether the time hasn’t come for people simply to work less. Quentin L. Cook, one of the Church’s twelve apostles, said in the April 2011 General Conference, “I would hope that Latter-day Saints would be at the forefront in creating an environment in the workplace that is more receptive and accommodating to both women and men in their responsibilities as parents.” But jobs also need to accommodate people with ailing parents, members of Relief Society, Young Women and Men, Primary, and Elders’ Quorum presidencies, not to mention bishoprics. This would be complex and difficult to implement in our society, but it is still worth considering some of the possible advantages to intentionally working less.

Mormonism contains an effective antidote to much of the alienation and vulnerabilities endemic to modern life. Visiting and home teaching, ward activities, and service projects are wonderfully effective, but they tend to compete with the demands of over-employment and over-extension. I like to imagine what Saints with a twenty-hour workweek might do with their time–family activities, temple work, visiting the elderly, gardening. Dinner parties and neighborhood get-togethers could flourish in ways they cannot now. People would eat better. We could care for our ailing family members ourselves instead of sending them to institutions. We could read more and rest more and think more about the business of living, which is, in Latter-day Saint theology, the business of salvation.

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