40-hour work-week as a tool of immiserating economic growth

David Cain's 2010 essay "Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed" -- occasioned by his return to full-time employment -- has a sharp-edged rumination on the modern, 40-hour work-week and what it does to us. In Cain's view, the 40-hour office week leaves us "tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have."

As technologies and methods advanced, workers in all industries became able to produce much more value in a shorter amount of time. You’d think this would lead to shorter workdays.

But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.

Can you imagine what would happen if all of America stopped buying so much unnecessary fluff that doesn’t add a lot of lasting value to our lives?

The economy would collapse and never recover.

All of America’s well-publicized problems, including obesity, depression, pollution and corruption are what it costs to create and sustain a trillion-dollar economy. For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people don’t feel like they need much they don’t already have, and that means they don’t buy a lot of junk, don’t need to be entertained as much, and they don’t end up watching a lot of commercials.

The culture of the eight-hour workday is big business’ most powerful tool for keeping people in this same dissatisfied state where the answer to every problem is to buy something.

Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (via Seanan)

(Image: New cubicles, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from plutor's photostream)

Notable Replies

  1. Uh-huh. Maybe he should try the 60-hour work week. Someone tell this guy we've all been completely aware of this problem for more or less ever. We could all scale back, work 20 hrs/week, and be able to live comfortably -- but only if everyone else does. It's the Prisoner's Dilemma grand-scale, with the added "rule" that the prison guards get 10X the reward of any prisoner.

  2. tldr had to get back to work.

  3. The only way that will ever happen is if people keep questioning the status quo. Perhaps there is nothing new in this article's take on the subject, but it keeps the idea in people's minds, perhaps introduces it to a few more.

    I switched to hourly contract work this year and I've never been happier; but I am very conscious of how lucky I am to have that opportunity and also how easily I could be replaced.

  4. That's a meaningless assertion. "Better than it's ever been before" is not good enough if it's always been varying degrees of terrible.

  5. Ygret says:

    No, it was big business that brought us the 80 hour workweek -- by forcing people off the land they'd lived on and from for a thousand years and into the factories working for less than subsistence wages 80 or more hours per week. Labor strikes eventually got concessions down to 40 hours with the blood of the workers. The labor movement also brought you OSHA (safety protection), health insurance, vacation and sick pay, and various and sundry other worker rights. Capitalism was theft and coercion from the very beginning. Its been blood and loss ever since for the working man just to extract the barest of human care and feeling from the brutality of capitalist domination. There is a better way that doesn't involve communism. Either get rid of money or provide every citizen and resident of every nation a basic guaranteed income, education, shelter and healthcare. There is nothing stopping such a system but those at the top who are always and only ever interested in artificial scarcity and maintaining their own power with the resulting immiseration of the people. If that immiseration is somewhat lessened for some of us in this era that doesn't change the landscape for most everyone else: wages for long hours that don't even put a roof over one's head, let alone provide decent food, healthcare and education.

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