From the beginning of capitalism, workers have struggled against the imposition of fixed working hours, and the demand for shorter hours was a key component of the early labor movement. Initial battles saw high levels of resistance in the form of individual absenteeism, numerous holidays and irregular work habits. This resistance to normal working hours continues today in widespread slacking off, with workers often surfing the internet rather than doing their job. At every step of the way, then, workers have struggled to escape normal working hours, and many of the labor movement’s earliest successes had to do with reducing work time. The two-day weekend, for example, emerged spontaneously from workers’ predilection for drinking and spending an extra day recovering rather than working. The weekend’s eventual consolidation as a recognized and bounded period of time off was the product of sustained political struggles (a process that was not completed in the Western world until the 1970s). Likewise, workers achieved significant success in reducing the working week from sixty hours in 1900 to just below thirty-five hours during the Great Depression. Such was the speed of success that, over a period of five years in the 1930s, the working week declined by eighteen hours. During the earlier years of the Depression, the idea of a shorter working week enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States, and legislation for a thirty-hour working week was thought to be imminent. Simultaneously, intellectuals prophesied even further reductions in work time—imagining worlds where work was reduced to a bare minimum. In a classic statement, Paul Lafargue argued for limiting work to just three hours a day. Keynes famously argued for the same outcome, calculating that by 2030 we would all be working fifteen-hour working weeks—though it is less well known that he was simply verbalizing what were the broadly held beliefs of the time. And Marx made the shortening of the working week central to his entire postcapitalist vision, arguing that it represented a "basic prerequisite" to reaching "the realm of freedom."

But such visions of a three-hour work day have disappeared. The near century-long push for shorter working hours ended abruptly during the Great Depression, when business opinion and government policy decided to use make-work programmes in response to unemployment. Soon after World War II, the working week stabilized at forty hours across much of the Western world, and there has since been little serious consideration of changing this. Instead there has been a general expansion of work in the ensuing decades. First, there has been an increase in time spent at jobs throughout society. As women entered the workforce, the working week remained the same, and the overall amount of time devoted to jobs therefore increased. Secondly, there has been a progressive elimination of the work–life distinction, with work coming to permeate every aspect of our waking lives. Many of us are now tied to work all the time, with emails, phone calls, texts and job anxieties impinging upon us constantly. Salaried workers are often compelled to work unrecognized overtime, while many workers feel the social pressure to be seen working long hours. These demands mean that the average full-time US worker in fact logs closer to forty-seven hours a week. On top of this, a vast amount of work is unpaid and therefore uncounted in official data (there is also an ongoing gender divide within this unpaid labor force). While waged work remains difficult for many to find, unpaid work is proliferating—an entire sphere of "shadow work" is emerging with automation at the point of sale, with work being delegated to users (think self-checkouts and ATMs). Moreover, there is the hidden labor required to retain a job: financial management, job searching if unemployed, constant skills training, commuting time, and the all-important (gendered) sphere of the labor involved in caring for children, family members, and other dependents.

If work has extended itself into so many areas of our lives, a return to a shorter working week would bring with it a number of benefits. Beyond the most obvious—that it increases free time—it would bring with it a series of more subtle benefits. In the first place, reducing the working week constitutes a key response to rising automation. In fact, the role of this policy in previous periods of automation is often forgotten. Many commentators have rightly pointed to the history of technological change to show that it need not lead to mass unemployment. However, the primary periods of automation coincided with significant reductions in the working week; employment was often sustained by redistributing the work. A second benefit of this policy is its various environmental advantages. For instance, reductions in the working week would lead to significant reductions in energy consumption and our overall carbon footprint. Increased free time would also mean a reduction in all the convenience goods bought to fit into our hectic work schedules. More broadly, using productivity improvements for less work, rather than more output, would mean that energy efficiency improvements would go towards reducing environmental impacts. A reduction in working hours is therefore an essential plank in any response to climate change. Other research suggests that a shorter working week would bring a general reduction in the stress, anxiety and mental health problems fostered by neoliberalism. But one of the most important reasons for reducing work time is that it is a demand that both consolidates and generates class power. In the first place, reducing work time can be deployed as a temporary tactic in political struggle—working to contract, strikes, and other ways of removing labor time are means to exert pressure on capitalists. But secondly—and most importantly—the reduction of the working week also makes the labor movement stronger. By withdrawing labor hours from the market, the total supply of labor goes down and worker power increases.


One of the most difficult problems in implementing a universal basic income (UBI) and building a post-work society will be overcoming the pervasive pressure to submit to the work ethic. Indeed, the failure of the United States’ earlier attempt to implement a basic income was primarily because it challenged accepted notions about the work ethic of the poor and unemployed. Rather than seeing unemployment as the result of a deficient individual work ethic, the UBI proposal recognized it as a structural problem. Yet the language that framed the proposal maintained strict divisions between those who were working and those who were on welfare, despite the plan effacing such a distinction. The working poor ended up rejecting the plan out of a fear of being stigmatized as a welfare recipient. Racial biases reinforced this resistance, since welfare was seen as a black issue, and whites were loath to be associated with it. And the lack of a class identification between the working poor and unemployed—the surplus population—meant there was no social basis for a meaningful movement in favor of a basic income. Overcoming the work ethic will be equally central to any future attempts at building a post-work world. Neoliberalism has established a set of incentives that compel us to act and identify ourselves as competitive subjects. Orbiting around this subject is a constellation of images related to self-reliance and independence that necessarily conflict with the program of a post-work society. Our lives have become increasingly structured around competitive self-realization, and work has become the primary avenue for achieving this. Work, no matter how degrading or low-paid or inconvenient, is deemed an ultimate good. This is the mantra of both mainstream political parties and most trade unions, associated with rhetoric about getting people back into work, the importance of working families, and cutting welfare so that "it always pays to work." This is matched by a parallel cultural effort demonizing those without jobs. Newspapers blare headlines about the worthlessness of welfare recipients, TV shows sensationalize and mock the poor, and the ever looming figure of the welfare cheat is continually evoked. Work has become central to our very self-conception—so much so that when presented with the idea of doing less work, many people ask, "But what would I do?" The fact that so many people find it impossible to imagine a meaningful life outside of work demonstrates the extent to which the work ethic has infected our minds.

While typically associated with the protestant work ethic, the submission to work is in fact implicit in many religions. These ethics demand dedication to one’s work regardless of the nature of the job, instilling a moral imperative that drudgery should be valued. While originating in religious ideas about ensuring a better afterlife, the goal of the work ethic was eventually replaced with a secular devotion to improvement in this life. More contemporary forms of this imperative have taken on a liberal-humanist character, portraying work as the central means of self-expression. Work has come to be driven into our identity, portrayed as the only means for true self-fulfilment. In a job interview, for instance, everyone knows the worst answer to "Why do you want this job?" is to say "Money," even as it remains the repressed truth. Contemporary service work heightens this phenomenon. In the absence of clear metrics for productivity, workers instead put on performances of productivity—pretending to enjoy their job or smiling while being yelled at by a customer. Working long hours has become a sign of devotion to the job, even as it perpetuates the gender pay gap. With work tied so tightly into our identities, overcoming the work ethic will require us overcoming ourselves.

The central ideological support for the work ethic is that remuneration be tied to suffering. Everywhere one looks, there is a drive to make people suffer before they can receive a reward. The epithets thrown at homeless beggars, the demonization of those on the dole, the labyrinthine system of bureaucracy set up to receive benefits, the unpaid "job experience" imposed upon the unemployed, the sadistic penalization of those who are seen as getting something for free—all reveal the truth that for our societies, remuneration requires work and suffering. Whether for a religious or secular goal, suffering is thought to constitute a necessary rite of passage. People must endure through work before they can receive wages, they must prove their worthiness before the eyes of capital. This thinking has an obvious theological basis—where suffering is thought to be not only meaningful, but in fact the very condition of meaning. A life without suffering is seen as frivolous and meaningless. This position must be rejected as a holdover from a now-transcended stage of human history. The drive to make suffering meaningful may have had some functional logic in times when poverty, illness, and starvation were necessary features of existence. But we should reject this logic today and recognize that we have moved beyond the need to ground meaning in suffering. Work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified. . . .

The dominance of the work ethic also runs up against the changing material basis of the economy. Capitalism demands that people work in order to make a living, yet it is increasingly unable to generate enough jobs. The tensions between the value accorded to the work ethic and these material changes will only heighten the potential for transformation of the system. Actions to make precarity and joblessness an increasingly visible political problem would go some way to generating the support for a post-work society. (In the same way that Occupy raised awareness of inequality, and UK Uncut highlighted tax evasion.) Perhaps most importantly, there is already a widespread hatred for jobs that can be tapped into. Much as neoliberal hegemony coopted real desires and garnered active consent, so too must any post-work hegemony find its active force in the real desires of people. The widespread demand that others adopt the work ethic is matched only by the disdain we feel for our own jobs. Today, across the world, only 13 per cent of people say they find their jobs engaging. Physically degraded, mentally drained, and socially exhausted, most workers find themselves under immense amounts of stress in their jobs. For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfilment or redemption—it is simply something to pay the bills. Those already excluded from jobs should not be fighting for inclusion in a society of work and labor, but rather be building the conditions to reproduce their lives outside of work. Changing the cultural consensus about the work ethic will mean taking actions at an everyday level, translating these medium-term goals into slogans, memes, and chants. It will require undertaking the difficult and essential work of workplace organizing and campaigning—of mobilizing people’s passions in order to topple the dominance of the work ethic. The success of these efforts will be clear when media discussions about automation shift from fear-mongering over lost jobs to celebrations of the freedom from drudgery.

Excerpted from Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Copyright 2015 by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Reprinted here with the permission of Verso Books.