NON-ANCIENT ORIGINS of the 5 DAY WORK WEEK
Where the Five-Day Workweek Came From
It’s a relatively new invention—is it time to shave another day off?
by Philip Sopher / August 21 2014
“Seven days,” wrote Witold Rybczynski in the August 1991 issue of The Atlantic, “is not natural because no natural phenomenon occurs every seven days.” The year marks one revolution of the Earth around the sun. Months, supposedly, mark the time between full moons. The seven-day week, however, is completely man-made. If it’s man-made, can’t man unmake it? For all the talk of how freeing it’d be to shave a day or two off the five-day workweek, little attention has been paid to where the weekly calendar came from. Understanding the sometimes arbitrary origins of the modern workweek might inform the movement to shorten it.
The roots of the seven-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and the number seven held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their seven-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to Rome, where it turns out the Jewish people had their own version of a seven-day week. (The reason for this is unclear, but some have speculated that the Jews adopted this after their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) At the very latest, the seven-day week was firmly entrenched in the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born. The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend,” Rybczynski notes, occurred in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries:
In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.
Some 19th-century Britons used the week’s seventh day for merriment rather than for the rest prescribed by scripture. They would drink, gamble, and enjoy themselves so much that the phenomenon of “Saint Monday,” in which workers would skip work to recover from Sunday’s gallivanting, emerged. English factory owners later compromised with workers by giving them a half-day on Saturday in exchange for guaranteed attendance at work on Monday. It took decades for Saturday to change from a half-day to a full day’s rest. In 1908, a New England mill became the first American factory to institute the five-day week. It did so to accommodate Jewish workers, whose observance of a Saturday sabbath forced them to make up their work on Sundays, offending some in the Christian majority. The mill granted these Jewish workers a two-day weekend, and other factories followed this example. The Great Depression cemented the two-day weekend into the economy, as shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment. Nearly a century later, mills have been overtaken by more advanced technologies, yet the five-day workweek remains the fundamental organizing concept behind when work is done. Its obsolescence has been foretold for quite a while now: A 1965 Senate subcommittee predicted Americans would work 14-hour weeks by the year 2000, and before that, back in 1928, John Maynard Keynes wrote that technological advancement would bring the workweek down to 15 hours within 100 years.
There’s reason to believe that a seven-day week with a two-day weekend is an inefficient technology: A growing body of research and corporate case studies suggests that a transition to a shorter workweek would lead to increased productivity, improved health, and higher employee-retention rates. The five-day workweek might be limiting productivity. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that those who worked 55 hours per week performed more poorly on some mental tasks than those who worked 40 hours per week. And Tony Schwartz, the author of Be Excellent at Anything, told Harvard Business Review that people work best in intense 90-minute bursts followed by periods of recovery. Taken together, these findings suggest that with the right scheduling of bursts and rests, workers could get a similar amount of work done over a shorter period of time. Moreover, there’s some anecdotal evidence that a four-day workweek might increase productivity. Google’s Larry Page has praised the idea, even if he hasn’t implemented it. And Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, has his employees work four-day, 32-hour weeks for half of the year. “When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time, ” he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times. “Better work gets done in four days than in five,” he concluded. Beyond working more efficiently, a four-day workweek appears to improve morale and well-being. The president of the U.K. Faculty of Public Health told the Daily Mail that a four-day workweek could help lower blood pressure and increase mental health among employees. Jay Love of Slingshot SEO saw his employee-retention rate shoot up when he phased in three-day weekends. Following this line of thought, TreeHouse, an online education platform, implemented a four-day week to attract workers, which has contributed to the company’s growth. That said, the five-day workweek might already have so much cultural intertia that it can’t be changed. Most companies can’t just tell employees not to come in on Fridays, because they’d be at a disadvantage in a world that favors the five-day workweek.
But there’s a creative solution to this problem. David Stephens, a consultant based in Houston, detailed in a post on LinkedIn the clever system devised at a company he used to work for. The company was divided into two teams. One would work from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, and the other would work those hours from Tuesday to Friday. The teams would switch schedules every week, so every two-day weekend would be followed by a four-day weekend. The results, Stephens reports, were positive. The company was open five days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He claims that morale skyrocketed. Employees took fewer sick days, visiting the doctor in off hours rather than during the workday. If the old ways are truly just sitting there, waiting to be disrupted, it’s surprising that the traditional workweek remains wholly intact. In this scenario, employees still work 40-hour weeks, but they do so over the course of four days rather than five. This arrangement still sounds sub-optimal, though, as working at full capacity for 10 hours is more demanding than doing so for eight. Despite that, the employees at Stephens’s company still preferred 40 hours in four days to 40 hours in five days. They might be even happier—and work even better—if they worked fewer hours in addition to fewer days. Given the ongoing conversation about how most of the old ways are just sitting there, waiting to be disrupted, it’s surprising that the traditional workweek remains wholly intact. On top of that, one would think that the slew of corporate perks deployed to attract top talent would have by now extended to a re-envisioning of the two-day weekend. But it hasn’t. Of course, the upsides of a four-day weekend have yet to be truly borne out, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests it’s a good idea. So, for now, there appears to be an untapped way for companies to bring on and retain high-quality employees: Shorten the work-week. And figure out a way to do that before everyone else does.
4 DAY WORK WEEK
Four-day week tempts Chinese as quality of life beats out workaholism
by Liu Zhun / April 02, 2015
“When workers arrived at factories and offices by bike or on foot on May 6 1995, for the first time they were surprised that their workplaces were closed. It was an ordinary Saturday, but they soon realized that it was also a landmark one. Since that date, Chinese mainlanders have had two days of rest instead of one day each week. However, with an extra day off, these people, in the first couple of years after the new policy, were quite lost and some even preferred to work than rest. Due to a lack of entertainment activities, they were simply bored and dawdled a whole day away. Twenty years on, things have changed upside down. Instead of having an impulse to work even on weekends, the Chinese are talking about shaving a day off the five-day workweek. A survey by Chinese web portal Sina shows that among 50,000 respondents, 88.4 percent have voted aye to a four-day workweek. The most popular reason, supported by 43.6 percent of respondents, is “work is not everything, and one who knows how to live can live happily.” The three-day weekend proposal has made headlines quite a few times. In 2013, Wang Qiyan, a Renmin University professor who studies recreational economy, anticipated that by 2030, the Chinese would be able to work four days and take three days off each week. Since then, every time the idea was brought up, it has been in the spotlight of public debate. Beyond China’s borders, debates about the workweek are also intense. Although a five-day workweek is common practice in the international community, a few North European countries and several cities in the US have adopted the four-day workweek. However, effects vary in different places, and the process has twists and turns. For instance, Utah, which launched a 4/10 workweek in 2008 for government employees, found the effects were positive for the first two years, saying the reform had saved money on utilities by 13 percent, and $6 million each year on transport costs. However, the experiment had to be ended in 2011, with lawmakers saying it was not saving as much as expected and more people were filing complaints about not having access to services on Fridays.
China may have to deal with the same dilemma. People will enjoy benefits from the four-day workweek, but cultural and habitual inertia might hinder the new policy from expanding more widely. The length of the workweek requires systematic analysis, nuanced demonstration and down-to-earth experiment. China went through almost a decade of discussion and study before the five-day workweek was finalized. Therefore, no one can jump to any immediate conclusions about the four-day workweek. But what we know for sure is that Chinese have reached higher levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Before the Chinese market economy took off, due to economic hardships, hardworking and diligence were the most valued traits in a relatively isolated society. Before 1995, China’s average working hours were 2448 a year, 30 to 50 percent higher than in developed countries. Although now, the Chinese still work 51.3 hours each week on average, which adds up to 2207 hours each year, according to the China Labor-force Dynamics Survey in 2013, the Chinese have started to pay more attention to how to live a healthy, happy and fulfilled life. Overtime is no longer a symbol for role models at work, but an annoying specter that interferes with people’s quality of life. As for the Chinese, such a change of mind heralds the return of down-to-earth values, which are prompting the rise of a civil society and pluralism. Having abandoned the “all work, no play” policy, the Chinese are not obsessed with being high-spirited and stubbornly diligent laomo, or model workers, any more.”
3 DAY WORK WEEK
Why Not a Three-Day Week?
by Maria Konnikova August 5, 2014
“In 1930, John Maynard Keynes posed a question about the economic future of society: “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be, a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?” To Keynes, the answer was clear: the rapid accumulation of capital, combined with technological advances, had already, by his estimates, improved the average quality of life in the West fourfold since the Industrial Revolution, and there was no reason why that trend shouldn’t continue. “I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day,” he wrote. The potent combination of technology and capital would render most material-based concerns irrelevant; people would no longer have to worry about basic problems of survival. One result would be an unprecedented abundance of leisure time, which would present a new problem for the average human: “How to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
In some sense, Keynes’s insight was accurate. Work hours declined during the Great Depression, and they have since then continued to decline in most countries around the world. In 1935, the International Labour Organization (now part of the United Nations) set a forty-hour week for its member nations; though many nations took time to meet that standard, the forty-hour work week was widespread by the nineties. Today, in some countries, the number is even lower: a 1998 law reduced the French work week from thirty-nine to thirty-five hours, with no corresponding pay cut for workers. According to the latest estimates by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.), the average work week in twenty-four of its thirty-two member nations declined from 2011 to 2012, to just under thirty-four hours a week. But the reality is more complicated that these numbers suggest. In the United States, where work hours have bucked the O.E.C.D. trend and have risen, we don’t seem any closer to lives of leisure or to the problem of too much free time. Ask any investment banker, chef, lawyer, or taxi driver if he works the standard number of hours, and he’ll probably laugh in your face. Recent efforts to limit the hours of medical residents, who often work for more than twenty-four hours straight, were met with controversy and blowback; a new rule, established in 2003, limited their work weeks to eighty hours, but supervisors have often found creative ways to circumvent it. On weekends and evenings, vacations and commutes, family events and meals, we are increasingly tethered to the office, increasingly able—and expected—to respond immediately to e-mails, requests, and queries. Free time is proving to be an ever-more elusive concept: the same technology that Keynes predicted would free us from work has instead brought work into our leisure time.
This trend is not only undesirable but may also prove unsustainable if we want to maintain a productive, creative, and happy society. That, at least, is the argument which was made recently by the Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim. During a talk at a conference in Paraguay two weeks ago, Slim proposed that the standard work schedule worldwide should be trimmed to three days a week. The current arrangement, he pointed out, was developed when life expectancy was lower and the world was, as a whole, poorer. Now, with people living longer and the structure of society shifting accordingly, a four-day weekend would improve quality of life, promote the development of other occupations, and healthier and more productive employees. Slim’s proposal included two important caveats: employees would work longer hours each day, and would continue to work into their seventies. (At Slim’s own company, Telmex, he is allowing workers past retirement age to keep working four-day weeks, at full salary.) Slim’s three-day work week was greeted with skepticism, but he is far from the first executive to criticize the structure of our working lives. In 1926, when six-day work weeks were the norm, Henry Ford proposed a five-day week: workers would receive the same pay and have their weekends free. Ford didn’t take the change as a matter of faith; he tested worker productivity beforehand. “Now we know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six,” he wrote. “And we shall probably get a greater, for the pressure will bring better methods.” Ford saw the five-day week as just one step in ongoing efforts to reduce working hours. “The five day week is not the ultimate, and neither is the eight hour day,” he wrote. “It is enough to manage what we are equipped to manage and to let the future take care of itself. It will anyway. That is its habit.”
In 2010, Anna Coote, the head of social policy at the New Economics, made a recommendation even more extreme than Slim’s: a twenty-one-hour work week. According to Coote, a twenty-one-hour week would help to address “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.” We may be reluctant to believe these claims—isn’t long, hard work necessary for success? But here’s the thing: when workers feel that they are being cheated or slighted by their employers, their productivity falls and their propensity to cut corners increases. In a study of non-union employees in the United States, the organizational psychologist Daniel Skarlicki found that workers’ perception that they are being treated unfairly not only causes negative emotions but also breeds a desire for retribution. If employees feel that they aren’t paid enough, they may feel entitled, for instance, to mistreat office property or to waste office materials. If they feel that they are being asked to work longer hours than they’d been led to believe they would have to, they may decide to spend more time in the office on Facebook, take longer lunch breaks, work more slowly, or call in sick. A common gripe is, “I don’t get paid enough to work as hard as I do.”
One of the main factors affecting how motivated we are at work is whether we feel in control of our jobs, and whether we think our actions and views can actually make a difference. In a 2010 survey of employees and supervisors at a large I.T. company, feelings of empowerment affected both intrinsic motivation (wanting to do the work for its own sake, rather than for money or for other external rewards) and creativity. A 2012 review of workplace-empowerment studies since the early twentieth century concluded that helping employees to feel more in control has “proven to be competitively advantageous.” Fostering a sense of control and self-efficacy, it turns out, is a far more effective way to encourage productivity and creativity than demanding a certain output. We’re creative and productive when we feel we have space to find our own way; we’re frustrated and stubborn when we don’t. While feeling in control and working fewer hours may seem like distinct issues, they are fundamentally connected. When we own more of our time, we feel like we’re in charge of our lives and our schedules, which makes us happier and, ultimately, better at what we do. Our health and happiness also increases in the course of our lifetimes and, with it, our value to the workplace and to society as a whole. Additionally, we may finally recover from chronic sleep deprivation, which is one of the greatest health hazards currently facing the average employee. Sleep quality, in turn, translates to better cognition, clearer thinking, and increased productivity. Instead of the usual vicious circle, we get a virtuous one.
That, of course, is one possibility—one grounded in psychology theory. Whether a shorter work week would lead to actual benefits for employers and employees would depend, in large part, on how it was implemented. Would thirty-three hours really mean thirty-three hours, or would we end up sneaking in extra hours of work during our off time, frightened that we might otherwise lose our competitive edge? If so, many of the advantages of the shift would be lost. At its core, this is a question of social values and norms. From its earliest days, the United States has fetishized hard work. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by Americans’ relentless ambition, which remained high even among the most prosperous and successful citizens, and kept many Americans in a constant state of unrest and unhappiness. “These men left their first country to improve their condition; they quit their resting-place to ameliorate it still more,” he wrote. “Fortune awaits them everywhere, but happiness they cannot attain.” In “The Protestant Ethic,” Max Weber pointed out that the foundational values of the nation were grounded in the virtue of work, work, work. According to a 2013 poll by Penn, Schoen, and Berland and Burston-Marsteller, Americans may be divided on political questions, but we share a commitment to economic enterprise.
In order for Slim’s proposal to work, we would need to reconceive the value of leisure time and shift how we measure employee performance, rewarding over-all output instead of long hours. That change would have to come from the top, so that employees would know they were not being penalized for working less. As Goldman Sachs has shown with their new “no Saturdays” rule, we wouldn’t have to start with something as drastic as a three-day week. Small changes in policy can lead to great shifts in mentality. The most important element of Slim’s proposal is the idea of giving us back our time—and enabling us to trust that using that time for ourselves won’t somehow disadvantage us. Our challenge, then, will be to learn what it means to make good use of our leisure time. Keynes said that “it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.” But he acknowledged that it would not be easy, “for we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”
21 hours: a new norm for the working week?
by Anna Coote / June 4, 2010
“In the 21st century, moving towards much shorter hours of paid employment could be a critical factor in heading off environmental, social and economic catastrophe. In the developed world, most of us are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us. Economic growth has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption. So workers have borrowed to consume what they cannot afford and now the credit bubble has burst. Politicians are urging us all to shop harder to help the economy recover and grow. Yet natural resources are critically depleted by high-rolling consumerism and the climate clock is ticking. While some of us accumulate more and more material goods, others have less and less of life’s essentials. We have even managed in our increasingly unequal society to divvy up time as an unequal commodity. Under-employment as well as unemployment is prevalent in low-income groups. Nearly 2.5 million are currently unemployed. Nearly one million worked part-time in the third quarter of 2009, because they could not find a full-time job, a rise of 30,000 over the previous quarter and up 30 per cent since the 2008. A more equal distribution of working time would have clear environmental benefits. Leading economists are turning their attention to how we can manage with little or no economic growth, on the ground that continuing growth in the developed world cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently or in time to avoid disastrous climate change. Tim Jackson,Peter Victor and others have identified shorter working hours as one way to reduce labour and output overall without intensifying hardship or widening inequalities: share out the total of paid work more evenly across the population.
A 21-hour working week is a long way from today’s standard of 40 hours or more, but not so far-fetched when you consider the infinitely varied ways in which we actually spend our time. On average, people of working age spend 19.6 hours a week in paid employment and 20.4 hours in unpaid housework and childcare. Of course these averages mask huge inequalities, both between women and men and between income groups – not only in how they use their time, but also in how far they can control it. Bringing the standard nearer to the average could help to iron out these differences. Moving towards a standard of 21 hours could help to redistribute unpaid as well as paid time – for example by making more jobs available for the unemployed and giving men more time to look after their children. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about our nine-to-five, five-day week. It’s just a relic of the industrial revolution. It can be changed. When the state of Utah in the US introduced a four-day week for state employees (without reduced hours, but giving everyone a three-day weekend), more than half said they were more productive and three-quarters said they preferred the new arrangements. The State saved $4.1 million through reduced absenteeism and overtime and $1.4 million through reduced travel in state-owned vehicles; it reduced carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons, other greenhouse gases by 8,000 tons and petrol consumption by 744,000 gallons. 82 per cent of employees said they wanted the one-year experiment to continue.
We could get off the consumer treadmill and leave a smaller footprint on the earth. We could spend less on energy-intensive ‘convenience’ items designed to save us time – from processed foods and household gadgets to cars and airline tickets. We’d have more time to care for friends and family, and to look after our own health. We could leave employment and claim our pensions later, with a much gentler transition to retirement. We’d have more time to keep learning and take part in local activities. We might begin to reassess how we value different kinds of work, regardless of whether or how it is paid. We might give a higher rating to relationships, pastimes and places that absorb less of our money and more of our time. There could be benefits for business too, with more women in paid employment, more men leading rounded, balanced lives, less workplace stress and greater productivity hour for hour. The driving force towards a prosperous economy would no longer be credit-fuelled consumerism, which has proved so destructive, but financial stability and good work distributed fairly across the population. None of this will be easy to achieve. A lot of people will have to adjust to earning a lot less, but this has to be seen as part of a bigger transition, over a decade or more, that will involve a radical shift in values and expectations. . Everything depends on having the right measures in place to ensure that work is fairly distributed, that everyone has enough to live on, that employers are encouraged to take on more staff, and that public attitudes change to support less materialist lifestyles and a revaluation of paid and unpaid time. These are explored in more detail in our report, 21 Hours.
Social norms that seem to be firmly fixed can sometimes change quite suddenly. Take, for example, attitudes towards slavery and votes for women, wearing seatbelts and crash helmets, not smoking in bars and restaurants. The weight of public opinion can swing from antipathy to routine acceptance, usually when there’s a combination of new evidence, changing conditions, a sense of crisis and a strong campaign. This proposal for a 21-hour working week is intended as a provocation, to stimulate debate and ideas. It also reflects an urgent need to build a sustainable future. We already have strong supporting evidence, changing conditions that demand a fresh approach and a profound sense of crisis.”
OPTIONAL WORK WEEK
Psychology of a Guaranteed Income
by Erich Fromm / 1966
“Until now, man’s freedom to act has been limited by two factors: the use of force on the part of the rulers (essentially their capacity to kill the dissenters), and more important, the threat of starvation against all who were unwilling to accept the imposed conditions of work. Whoever rebelled against these conditions, even if no other force was used against him, was confronted with hunger. The principle prevailing throughout most of human history (in capitalism as well as in the Soviet Union) is: “He who does not work shall not eat.” This threat forced man not only to act in accordance with what was demanded of him, but also to think and to feel in such a way that he would not even be tempted to act differently. The reason that past history is based on the threat of starvation has its source in the fact that with the exception of certain primitive societies, man has lived at a level of scarcity. There were never sufficient material goods to satisfy the needs of all, usually a small group of `directors’ took for themselves all that their hearts desired, and the many who could not sit at the table were told it was God’s or Nature’s law that this should be so. But it must be noted that the main factor in this was not the greed of the `directors’ but the low level of material productivity.
A guaranteed income, which becomes possible in the era of economic abundance, could for the first time free man from the threat of starvation, and thus make him truly free and independent economically and psychologically. Nobody would have to accept conditions of work merely because he feared hunger; a talented or ambitious man or woman could learn new skills in preparation for a different kind of occupation. A woman could leave her husband, an adolescent his family. People would no longer learn to be afraid, if they did not have to fear for their bread. (This holds true of course, only if no political threat inhibits man’s free thought, speech and action.) A guaranteed income would not only establish freedom as a reality rather than a slogan; it would also establish a principle deeply rooted in Western religious and humanist traditions: man has the right to live, regardless! This right to live – to have food, shelter, medical care, education, etc. – is an intrinsic human right that cannot be restricted by any condition, not even the one that the individual must be socially “useful.”
The shift from a psychology of scarcity to that of abundance is one of the most important steps in human development. A psychology of scarcity produces anxiety, envy and egotism (to be seen most drastically in peasant cultures the world over). A psychology of abundance produces initiative, faith in life, solidarity. The fact is that most men are still geared psychologically to the economic facts of scarcity when the industrial world is in the process of entering a new era of economic abundance. Because of this psychological “lag,” many people cannot even understand the new ideas implicit in the concept of a guaranteed income. A further effect of a guaranteed income coupled with greatly diminished working hours for all, would be to make the spiritual and religious problems of human existence real and imperative. Until now most men have been too much occupied with work (or too tired after work) to be seriously concerned with such problems as “What is the meaning of life?”, “What do I believe in?”, “What are my values?” and “Who am I?”. If work ceases to be the main concern, man will either be free to confront these problems seriously – or he will be driven half mad by boredom. It should follow that economic abundance would mark the transition from a pre-human to a truly human society.
To balance this picture, one must raise some objections against, or at least questions about the concept of a guaranteed income. The most obvious question is whether it would not reduce the incentive for work. It is a fact that even now there is no work for an ever-increasing sector of the population, and that for these people the question of incentive is irrelevant. Nevertheless the objection is a serious one. I believe however that it can be demonstrated that material necessity is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. Pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself – examples of the force of such alternate incentives are not lacking. An obvious one is the work of scientists, artists, et. Al. whose achievements were not principally motivated by the need for money but by a mixture of factors, interest in the work, satisfaction in the achievement or the wish for fame. But obvious though this example may be, it is not entirely convincing because it can be said that such outstanding people will make extraordinary efforts precisely because they are extraordinarily gifted, hence they give no clue to the reactions of the citizenry at large. This objection may be overcome, however, if we consider the incentives for people who are not notably creative. What prodigious effort is expended on sports, on recreation, on hobbies, from which no material rewards are to be expected! Prof. Elton Mayo closely demonstrated the extent to which interest in the work process itself can be an incentive for working for the first time in his classic study at the Chicago Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company. The very fact that unskilled women workers were drawn into the experience of work productivity of which they were the subjects, the fact that they became interested and active participants in the experiment, resulted in increased productivity. As a corollary, their physical health improved.
The situation becomes even clearer from the study of older forms of society. The efficiency and incorruptibility of the traditional Prussian civil service were famous, despite the fact that wages were very low. In this case such concepts as honor, loyalty, and duty were the determining motivations for excellent work. Still another motivation appears in pre-industrial societies (like medieval Europe or the half-feudal Latin-American states at the beginning of this century). In these societies the carpenter, for instance, wanted to earn enough to satisfy the needs of his traditional standard of living, and would refuse more work, when he had reached that point. Aside from the multiple incentives to work, it is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy. On the contrary, he suffers from the results of inactivity. People might enjoy loafing for one or two months, but the vast majority (except for the very sick or the most philosophic) would after that beg to work, even without pay. The fields of child development and mental illness offer abundant data in this connection. What is needed is a systematic investigation in which the available facts are organized and analyzed from the standpoint of “laziness as disease.” Modern alienated man is deeply bored (usually unconsciously) and hence has a yearning for laziness, rather than for activity. This yearning, however, is itself a symptom of our “pathology of normalcy.” Presumably, misuse of the guaranteed income would disappear after a short time, just as the new clerk in the candy store ceases to filch caramels after a few weeks of gorging.
Skepticism as to the benefits of the guaranteed income is also expressed in the observation that those who earn a comfortable living are probably just as afraid to lose a job that gives them, say, $15,000 a year, as are those who might go hungry if they were to lose their jobs. If this objection were valid, the guaranteed income would still increase the freedom of the large majority, but would do little for the middle and upper classes. In order to deal responsibly with this objection we must consider the spirit of contemporary industrial society. Man has transformed himself into a homo consumens. He is voracious and passive, and tries to compensate for his inner emptiness by continuous and ever-increasing consumption (there are many clinical examples for this mechanism in cases of overeating, overbuying, overdrinking, as a reaction to depression and anxiety): he consumes cigarettes, liquor, sex, movies, travel, as well as education, books, lectures, and art. He appears to be active, “thrilled,” yet deep down he is anxious, lonely, depressed and bored (boredom can be defined as that type of chronic depression that can successfully be compensated by consumption). Twentieth-century industrialism has created this new psychological type, homo consumens, primarily for economic reasons, i.e. the need for mass consumption, which is stimulated and manipulated by advertising. But the character type once created also influences the economy and makes the principle of ever-increasing satisfaction appear rational and realistic.
Contemporary man thus has an unlimited hunger for more and more consumption. From this follows several consequences. If there is no limit to the greed for consumption and since in the foreseeable future no economy can produce enough for unlimited consumption for everybody, thee can never be true “abundance” (psychologically speaking) as long as the character structure of the homo consumens remains dominant. For the greedy person there is always scarcity – he never has enough, however much he has. Furthermore he feels covetous and competitive toward everybody else. Hence he is basically isolated and frightened. He cannot really enjoy art or other cultural stimulations since he remains basically greedy. It follows that persons so oriented who lived on the guaranteed income level would feel frustrated and worthless, and those who earned more would remain prisoners of circumstances because they were frightened and had lost the possibility for maximum consumption. For those reasons I believe that guaranteed income without a change from the principle of maximum consumption would take care of only certain problems (economic and social) and would not have the radical effect possible from its implications. What then must be done to implement the guaranteed income? Generally speaking, we must change our system from one of maximal to one of optimal consumption. This would mean a vast change in industry from the production of commodities for individual consumption to the production of commodities for public use: schools, theaters, libraries, parks, hospitals, public transportation, housing, in other words an emphasis on the production of those things that encourage the unfolding of the individual’s inner productiveness and activity. It can be shown that the voraciousness of homo consumens is directed mainly toward the things he “eats” (incorporates): the free public services, which enable the individual to enjoy life, do not evoke greed. Such a change from maximal to optimal consumption would require drastic changes in production patterns, and also a drastic reduction of the appetite-whetting techniques of advertising.
These considerations lead to other problems that require further study: Are there objectively valid criteria to distinguish between rational and irrational, between good and bad needs, or is any subjectively felt need of the same value? (Good is defined here as enhancing human aliveness, awakeness, productivity, sensitivity; bad as weakening or paralyzing these human potentials.) In the case of drug addiction, overeating, alcoholism, we all make such a distinction. Study in this area should lead to the following practical consideration: what are the minimum legitimate needs of an individual? (For instance, one room per person, so much clothing, or so many calories, so many culturally valuable commodities such as radio, books, etc.) In a society as abundant as the United States today, it should be easy to figure the cost for a decent subsistence minimum and also what the limits for maximal consumption might be. Progressive taxation on consumption beyond a certain threshold could be considered. All this would mean the combination of the principles of a guaranteed income, with transformation of our society from maximal to optimal individual consumption, and a drastic shift from production for individual needs to production for public needs.
I believe it is important to consider along with the idea of a guaranteed income the concept of free consumption of certain commodities. One example would be that of bread, then milk and vegetables. Let us assume that everyone could go into any bakery and take as much bread as he liked (the state would pay the bakery for all bread produced). The greedy would at first take more than they could use but after a short time this “greed consumption” would wear itself out and people would take only what they really needed. Such free consumption would, in my opinion, create a new dimension in human life (unless we look at it as the repetition on a much higher level of the consumption pattern in certain primitive societies). Man would feel freed from the principle, “he who does not work shall not eat.”
Even this beginning of free consumption might constitute a novel experience of freedom. It is obvious even to the non-economist that the provision of free bread for all could be easily paid for by the state, which would cover this disbursement by a corresponding tax. However we can go a step further. Assume that not only all minimal needs for food were obtained free – bread, milk, vegetables, fruit – but that everybody could obtain, without paying, say one suit, three shirts, six pairs of socks, etc..per year, that transportation was free (requiring, of course, vastly improved systems of public transportation), while private cars became much more expensive. Eventually, one imagines, housing could be solved in the same way, by big housing projects with sleeping halls for the young, one small room for older, or married couples, to be used without cost by anybody who chose. This leads me to the suggestion that a way of solving the guaranteed-income problem would be by free minimal consumption of all necessities, instead of through cash payments. The production of these minimum necessities, together with highly improved public services, would keep production going, just as would guaranteed-income payments.
It may be objected that this method is more radical, and hence less acceptable than the proposal to guarantee everyone an income for life, but it must be noted that free minimal services could theoretically be installed within the present system, while the idea of guaranteed income will not be acceptable to many not because it is not feasible but because of the psychological resistance against the abolishment of the principle: “he who does not work shall not eat.”
One other philosophical, political and psychological problem to be studied is that of freedom. The Western concept of freedom was to a large extent based on the freedom to own property, and to exploit it, as long as other legitimate interests were not threatened. This principle has actually been punctured in many ways in Western industrial societies by taxation, which is a form of expropriation, and by state intervention in agriculture, trade and industry. At the same time, private property in the means of production is becoming increasingly replaced by the semi-public property typical of giant corporations.
While the guaranteed-income concept would mean some additional state regulations, it must be remembered that today the concept of freedom for the average individual lies not so much in his freedom to own and exploit property (capital) as in his freedom to consume whatever he likes. Many people today consider it an interference with their freedom if unlimited consumption is restricted, although only those on top are really free to choose what they want. The competition between different brands of the same commodities and different kinds of commodities creates the illusion of personal freedom, when in reality the individual wants what he is conditioned to want. A new approach to the problem of freedom is necessary; only with the transformation of homo consumens into a productive, active person will man experience freedom as the opportunity to do what is most fulfilling and not as an unlimited choice of commodities.
The full effect of the principle of the guaranteed income is to be expected only in conjunction with:
(1) A change in habits of consumption, the transformation of homo consumens into the productive, active man (in Spinoza’s sense).
(2) The creation of a new spiritual attitude, that of humanism (in theistic or nontheistic forms).
(3) A renaissance of truly democratic methods (for instance, a new lower house of Congress in which would be integrated decisions arrived at by hundreds of thousands of face-to-face groups).
The danger that a state that nourishes all could become a mother goddess with dictatorial qualities can be overcome only by a simultaneous, drastic increase of democratic procedure in all spheres of social activities. The fact is that even today the state is extremely powerful, without giving these benefits. In sum, together with economic research in the field of the guaranteed income, other study must search out the psychological, philosophical, religious and educational parallel effects. And it must not be forgotten that the guaranteed income can succeed only if we stop spending 10 percent of our total resources on economically useless and dangerous armaments, if we can halt the spread of senseless violence by systematic help to the underdeveloped countries, and if we find methods to contain the population explosion. Without such changes, no plan for the future will succeed, because there will be no future.”