“It has been computed by some political arithmetician that if every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labour would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life … and the rest of the 24 hours might be leisure and happiness.”
When Benjamin Franklin wrote that in 1790, the American thinker was a few centuries ahead of his time. But the modern economy is so productive that everyone would have far more “comforts” than were available in Franklin’s day, even if the standard working week were shrunk from 40 to 20 hours. The four-hour day, though, isn’t on the horizon. Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a professor of Leisure Studies at the University of Iowa, explains why not in a fascinating new book, “Free Time, The Forgotten American Dream”.
For more than a century, labour activists continually demanded – and were granted – shorter working hours. By the 1930s, futurologists were sure that the trend would continue. Workers wanted more leisure time, and, thanks to ever more efficient machines, they could have it, while still enjoying steady improvements in the material standard of living.
The experts were wrong. In 1935, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt moved from favouring to opposing the six-hour working day. That was the beginning of the end. For the past few decades, the standard working week in rich countries has remained constant, or even lengthened. Far more women are in the paid workforce than ever before. A recent attempt to introduce a 35-hour week in France was soon abandoned. It seems that people have had a change of heart regarding the relative value of consumption and leisure.
What changed? Certainly not productivity growth. Technological developments have continually saved more labour, much of it tedious or dangerous. The old historic pattern – more leisure time along with more goods and services – could have continued unabated.