What People of 1923 Predicted About 2023
Want to understand "the future of work"? Start with the past.
The results are in: Four-day workweeks really work.
That’s what a new study concluded, after following 33 companies across six countries that shifted to a four-day workweek for six months. Those companies saw largely positive results, including increased revenue, happier employees, and more eco-friendliness.
But can it get even better? What if, instead of working four days a week, we just work four hours a day?
Back in 1923, one of the world’s greatest futurists declared exactly that: He believed that, by 2023, we’d be working just four hours a day. It was front-page news across the country. Here’s one example:
That’s a Tennessee newspaper in August 23, 1923, reporting on a prediction from Charles Steinmetz, one of the leading developers of electricity of the time. He was widely considered to be a genius who could predict massive changes in society. And here’s the beginning of the report:
Sounds incredible, right? Four hours of work a day, and then we can “follow our natural bent.” In other words, we're chilling all day.
So here’s an interesting question: Why didn’t it happen?
Here’s a more interesting answer: It did happen.
To understand this, I called Jason Crawford, author of the fantastic Roots of Progress blog. He studies how progress happens over time, and how we can ensure continued progress.
Crawford said that, on first look, Steinmetz was wrong — because here we are in 2023, and most of us are not working four-hour workdays.
But what if we zoom out, and look at our work lives in a different way?
First of all, consider Charles Steinmetz's starting point. It wasn't the eight-hour workday as we know it now. “It was not uncommon to have something like 80-hour workweeks in the past, to have six-day workweeks, and 12 hours a day, especially for factory workers,” Crawford told me. Then he pointed me to some fascinating research by the economic historians Michael Huberman and Chris Minns, like this:
Our annual working hours per worker have gone waaaaaay down!
Now let's think about how much work people did across their whole life. Without child labor laws, people once began working as children. Also, the concept of retirement did not exist until more recently. People tended to work until they either physically could not, or until they died.
“Here's the other key thing: Lifetimes themselves increased,” Crawford says, “so it used to be that the retirement age was close to the life expectancy. Now we're living longer, and so you can now expect to have 10, 20, or more years after you retire.”
What’s the result of this?
We're working about half as much as we did a century-plus ago. For example, a 1995 study found that the total life hours worked shrank for the average British worker from 124,000 hours in 1856 to 69,000 hours in 1981.
Now, let’s go back to the prediction from 1923.
Charles Steinmetz predicted that we’d work four-hour workdays in 2023. Are we doing that? No.
But, if we zoom out, are we working significantly less than people of his era? We sure are.
Also, our work is easier — far fewer people today are working physically taxing jobs. We also have more choice over how we work. And for many of us, work is a joy.
If I were to track my own work hours, for example, I might actually only “work” four hours a day — which is to say, perform tasks that I consider laborious. The rest is more pleasurable. It’s work, but it’s work I love, which was considerably less available to people in 1923.
Charles Steinmetz was kinda right after all. Just not literally.
There’s an important point to all of this.
Two, really. And here they are:
- Work changes! As we reconsider “the future of work” today, let’s not forget that work can happen and change in many ways. Just because we worked one way before, that does not mean it’s the only way work must happen.
- We can be wrong, but still right! This story is a perfect example of how things don’t always turn out the way we expect them to — but that doesn’t mean they turn out wrong.
If you’d like to go deeper, there’s a lot more to say on this.
Here’s my podcast episode, where I interview Jason Crawford and an MIT economist, and try to understand what the past 100 years of work can tell us about the next 100 years of work.
Here’s Jason Crawford’s essay, inspired by my episode, where he goes deep into the evolution of work and working hours.
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