The hardest working generation ever

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Just because we answer a work email at 9 pm while watching TV doesn’t make us the hardest working generation in history. And I predict that the next generation will work even less than we do.

At least once a week I hear something about how technology has turned us all into 24×7 employees, instead of the ‘traditional’ 40 hour work week. We are apparently a group that works more hours than anyone ever has before. It is an understandable mindset: who wouldn’t want to be part of the most industrious society ever? It makes us feel good, and even gives us something to complain about when we are in the mood!

However, it is nonsense.  As the Atlantic points out this month: “…we’re working less than we did in the 1960s and 1980s and considerably less than we did in the agrarian-industrial economy when Keynes foresaw a future of leisure…Every advanced economy in the world is working considerably fewer hours on average than it used to.” The key is to look at the total work that people do: on the job and around the home.

Individuals may vary, of course, but across time, countries and society as a whole, technology has almost certainly enabled us to work fewer hours: the decline in the USA in hours worked since 1950 may only be about 10%, but a) they started out lower, and b) other developed countries have seen a drop of 25-40%!

How is this possible?

Both sets of my grandparents had electrically powered labour saving devices called “washing machines” in their basements, and they looked like this:

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Those two rollers at the top are called mangles, and they did NOT dry your clothes: you fed the cleaned washing through the rollers, which squeezed most of the water out, then you still had to hang dry the washing, and then fold and iron EVERYTHING. (No artificial fabrics or Permanent Press back then!) Each load was a solid 10-15 minutes of squeezing and hanging. Today? We throw the stuff in a dryer, hit a button and get to relax.

In my great-grandparents time, a purchased chicken (let alone one you raised, which was even more work!) came full loaded: head and feet still on, wearing feathers, and filled with bits that you needed to remove.

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I once bought a bird that way: plucking, gutting and butchering a bird took me over an hour. I am sure that folks in 1900 were faster, but it would still be 15-20 minutes of prep before you were even able to start cooking the damn thing. Today? Most of us feel like heroes when we don’t go out for dinner or order in. And don’t get me started about microwave ovens.

In the last 60-120 years, think of all the work that people used to do that has more-or-less stopped. Not just cooking and laundry: vacuums instead of brooms, chopping wood for the stove versus natural gas or electricity, pumping the well water compared to turning on a tap, filling the kerosene lamps contrasted with flicking a light switch…making your own clothes, knitting, darning, tatting, push lawn mowers, ice for the icebox. Dishes! I forgot about washing and drying dishes for three meals a day, nearly every day of the year.

For both men and women (not counting those who had servants, I guess) it adds up to an easy 10-20 hours per week of additional labour, or an extra 500-1000 hours per year.

So be honest with yourself: do you really spend 15 hours a week answering your bosses’ emails after “regular working hours?”

In a number of countries, the average person 60 years ago worked almost twice as hard as the average person in those countries does today, and I would suspect that that the average person 120 years worked three times as many hours.

Don’t get me wrong: being on call 24×7 has its challenges, and almost certainly is a new form of stress that will have long-term psychological and societal implications. But along with that “curse of technology” comes the blessing of technology as well: literally hundreds or even thousands of hours of leisure time that the average person would not have enjoyed in 1894.

  1. It’s not technology’s fault that we waste those hours playing Candy Crush!
  2. Our great-grandparents would have been a little upset at the idea of taking a call from the boss at 9 pm. But they would switch with you in a heartbeat, if it meant never plucking another chicken.

[EDITED TO ADD CANCON]

I found the primary data source for the chart at the top. http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=ANHRS#

There was no Canadian line on the chart (the other countries go back to 1950, but Canadian data only starts in 1961.) I was able to add a chart (below – click to enlarge) which shows the US and Canadian numbers: our average annual hours worked has declined a bit faster than the USA, at 18% since 1961.

OECD Stats with Canada

 

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