Before running us into extinction, Robots will probably give us three-day weekends
Before they run humanity into irrelevancy and perhaps even extinction, robots are probably going to give us three-day weekends. It is a strange and uncomfortable reason to look forward to having your job automated. But, there’s a silver lining in everything – even the road to robotic domination.
Which, we are hurtling along.
Because, you see, machines are already replacing human jobs at an alarming rate. And with the acceleration of AI technology and automation, it's a problem that’s only going to get worse. As driverless cars start making deliveries, and commercial jets start to be piloted by drones; as lawyers start being replaced by algorithms and library technicians start being forced out by computer programs people everywhere are going to start losing gigs. And it will not happen slowly.
In fact, in a study from 2017 Oxford University found that 47-percent of US workers stand to be replaced by automation over the next twenty years. That is 153 million people…
Which is to say, over the next two decades nearly half of Americans will find themselves with a lot more free-time on their hands. And that is not necessarily a bad thing… according to labor experts and successful entrepreneurs, it could mean that a four-day workweek is closer than any of us might have imagined.
Let’s back up a second, though. Because, no doubt, there are a lot of business people out there scoffing at the notion that their employees should enjoy three days off instead of only two. To truly understand why the four-day workweek is something to seriously consider, we need to rewind the tape, all the way back to beginning of the last century.
The industrial revolution was gaining steam, most people either worked in factories or on farms, and America needed labor – as much as it could get. The average workweek back then was 60 hours a week, and people were expected to work six days a week until 1926, when Henry Ford standardized the five-day workweek by giving his employees both Saturday and Sunday off. What a gentleman. And it changed labor practices for almost 100 years.
From there, things continued to shift. As technology improved and wages went up, employers shaved the workweek down, until, finally in 1940, it leveled off at 40 hours/week – where we still stand today.
Thing is, the progression of technology hasn’t stopped, or even slowed down in the 78 years since – the opposite, in fact. It has dramatically increased and continues to increase with each passing day. And the better and more adept technology gets at the jobs we give it, the less work is left for human beings to do.
Which brings us back to today, where we approach a threshold of historic proportions: that of the four-day workweek.
Frances O’Grady is the general secretary of the Trade’s Union Congress (TUC) in the UK, an organization that supports labor unions. Recently at a TUC conference in Manchester, he said, “I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.”
O’Grady went on to explain that civilization is going through a period of “rapid industrial disruption,” and as technology continues to develop, “everyone should get richer.”
And he isn’t alone in these sentiments. In fact, compared to some of the other people playing with the idea of a shorter workweek, O’Grady actually sounds a little conservative.
Richard Branson, the multi-billionaire business magnate and founder of Virgin Airlines, went even further than O’Grady, suggesting that America could go even as far as cutting back to a three-day workweek.
“Many people out there would love three-day or even four-day weekends. There are many people out there who would want to job share, and would love longer holidays. Everyone would welcome more time to spend with their loved ones, more time to get fit and healthy, more time to explore the world,” says Branson. “By working more efficiently, there is no reason why people can't work less hours and be equally – if not more – effective.”
That makes sense. Have you ever felt fresher and more productive at work after a long weekend? Are you familiar with that Friday drag, where you look for anything to kill time, to while away those last few hours until you get to leave and go home to your life? If people worked less, got more free time, and got to enjoy their lives more, chances are they’d be grateful to their boss for it and they’d work harder.
At least, that’s what Branson thinks, “Flexible working is smart working. Screw business as usual. If you trust your people to make their own decisions, they will reward you.”
However, while mega-entrepreneurs like Branson, and labor experts like O’Grady seem to think that it’s time to cut back from the five-day workweek to four (or even three), not everyone is on board. Ryan Carson, founder and CEO of the programming-education company Treehouse, tried cutting his company’s workweek back to four days a week in 2015. By 2016, the initiative had been nixed.
“It created this lack of work ethic in me that was fundamentally detrimental to the business and to our mission,” Carson told Growthlab. “It actually was a terrible thing.”
Which, kind of sound like a personal problem.
Anyway, while Carson might not be alone in his doubt of the shorter workweek, he is part of a shrinking minority. In New Zealand, a firm called Perpetual Guardian tested out the four-day workweek and found that it was so successful, they quickly made the change permanent. One kiwi employee of the Perpetual Guardian even surprised herself with its effectiveness, “Heck, it was productive,” she told the Guardian.
In the Netherlands, a four-day workweek is the norm. Then there’s Denmark, Ireland and Germany all of which boast of a workweek that is less than 35 hours a week. Other countries are trying this out, and it seems to be working very well for them.
And that kind of adaptation is the only thing that’s going to make the future a livable place. Imagine if stubborn American CEO’s denied everyone shorter hours, even though automation had taken over the brunt of the work… People would be stuck sitting at their job all day long with nothing to do except let the poison of boredom eat away at their souls.
It would not be unlike prison.
So, maybe we should welcome the oncoming wave of automation-related unemployment. Maybe we should relish in the fact that these machines are going to diminish our hours on the job. Maybe this is exactly what we’ve been striving for all of civilized history. It is, after all, the purpose of technology at its core: to make life easier for human beings.
This could be our ticket out of the rat race. The real question then becomes, how would you use your extra time? Would you use it to pursue a passion, create something, follow a dream you’ve never had the time to follow?
You could. The option would be there. And that may very well be the greatest outcome humans could have ever hoped for when we started down this road to automation in the first place: freedom.