How much do we really need to work?

The Greater Rochester Russell Set had a round-table discussion of Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in which, among other things, Russell contended that a four-hour work day would be sufficient to produce everything that people need—provided that you eliminate work to produce munitions, useless luxuries and status symbols, and to support an idle rich class.

I have come across the four-hour work day many times over the course of my life.  It could well be true.  A certain irreducible minimum of work is needed, but no advanced country has ever collapsed as a result of reducing the work week or the work day, that I know of.

But I wonder whether the argument for the four-hour work day has any empirical basis.  Are there any communities, utopian or otherwise, that adopted a four-hour work day?

I suppose the so-called “primitive” people would be an example.  One of the complaints of white European conquerors was that native Americans and Africans were lazy; that is, they were satisfied with what to a European appeared to be bare subsistence, and were unwilling to work for wages or raise cash crops to get anything more.  A common solution was to impose taxes, which they had to earn money to pay.

I’m re-reading Eric Foner’s great historical work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which says that the goal of many of the Northerners was something called “compulsory free labor.”   They thought that the freed slaves should continue to work on the plantations and pick cotton, but what the slaves wanted was to own their own land, grow their own food and sell crops only to buy what they could not provide for themselves.  Many of the white people, Northerners and Southerners, thought that was proof that Negroes were “lazy”; they didn’t want to work for other people.

People differ on what counts as work and what doesn’t.  Thomas Geohegan, in his book about German social democracy, wrote that the average German does much less paid work than the average American (and also, by the way, about half as much as the average Greek), but the German spends much more time doing chores—cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, etc.—which, however, are not thought of as work.

As for myself, I like being retired, and being able to choose for myself what I do and don’t do.  I enjoy my web log, but I would hate blogging for money and always having to worry about how many views I get.   It would be hard to go back to working for a boss.  I know this is a privilege, and I know that most people aren’t so lucky.

Click on In Praise of Idleness for a link to Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”

Click on The Right to Be Lazy for a link to an 1883 pamphlet by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, which anticipates Russell’s argument.

Click on It’s the 21st century: why are we working so hard? for thoughts of a contemporary writer in The Guardian. [Added 7/14/12]

Click on America’s Misguided Culture of Overwork for an interview with Thomas Geohegan on work in Germany and the United States.

Click on Are the Greeks the Hardest Workers in Europe? for the figures on Greek and German hours worked.

[7/14/12]  I sent out a version of this post in the form of an e-mail to my circle of friends and to the Bertrand Russell Society discussion list.  One of the replies I got was as follows:

When work is an alienated form of labor in a hierarchical organization divorced from any raison d’etre save profitmaking, then every minute spent at work can feel like a minute lost to time—never to be reclaimed in this precious and finite life.
But when work is “meaningful”—as people like Paul Goodman used to write about—then hours upon hours can be spent at work in great satisfaction.  Meaningful work is, to me, work that is creative, work the builds something, work that coheres with our values, and work that contributes to our communities.  It is work that we have some stake in because it is work that we have some say in.
When critics say that utopians desire idleness, they’re wrong; what they desire is meaningful work instead of alienating labor.

Weaving hammocks at Twin Oaks

Another friend pointed to the example of Helen and Scott Nearing, who decided to drop out of the money economy and live self-sufficiently on an old farm in Vermont.  They reportedly devoted four hours a day to “bread labor,” such as growing food and shoveling out the outhouse; four hours to “professional labor,” such as writing articles and books; and four hours to community service and public affairs.  Click on Nearing Enough for an account of their lives and philosophy.

Somebody else pointed to the example of B.F. Skinner’s fictional utopian community, Walden Two, where members only worked four hours a day.   The Twin Oaks community attempted to duplicate Skinner’s Walden Two in practice, and, according to one report, they have a 45-hour work week.  But this includes household chores.  Twin Oaks leaders say they spent only about 20 hours a week doing things that are equivalent to paid work.  Click on Working on the Good Life at Twin Oaks for an explanation of the Twin Oaks work system by a member.

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