Alibaba founder Jack Ma stated in a recent interview that 30 years from now people may work a 4-hour work day, and only 4 days per week. While many people may scoff at that thought, is Ma really so far off?
Work Week Is Shrinking
As Ma pointed out, his father worked 16-hour days in farm fields and though he was busy. Nowadays people work 8-hour days five days a week and think that they’re busy. So why shouldn’t the work week shrink to 4 hours a day, 4 days a week?
The 40-hour work week has become so sacrosanct that people think of it almost as a gold standard. If you’re working less than 40 hours a week people think that you’re lazy. Conversely, working 50-60 hour weeks or longer gives the impression that someone is a hard worker.
But working longer isn’t the same thing as working harder, working more efficiently, or being more productive. A farmer driving a combine two hours a day is going to be able to harvest a lot more food than a farmer working 16 hours harvesting by hand with a scythe. The capital (combine) that the first farmer is able to put to use allows him to work less, harvest more, and make more money.
Capital vs. Labor
Improvements in productivity come about through increased used of capital. The more labor is replaced by capital, the more productive workers can become. Developments in technology that save on labor will ultimately make people wealthier and more productive.
Take this article for instance. It took far longer to write this article than it takes you to read it. But imagine a day when voice-activated software has become so advanced that writing and editing this article is easy as speaking into a microphone. It could be written in less than half the time it takes now, freeing up more time to produce other written products. Advances in technology lead to greater productivity. And greater productivity leads to greater wealth and a higher standard of living.
Fear of Technology Taking Jobs
There is a fear, of course, that machines will take over people’s jobs. Yes, machines will take over many jobs. But they have been doing that ever since the first machines were invented, and mankind is better off for that. The guy who hogs out metal on a mill and turns pieces on a lathe by hand may be highly skilled, but a CNC machine is going to mill and turn those pieces much quicker and more efficiently. That means that the man who programs the CNC machine will be more productive and therefore more highly paid than the man who still machines by hand.
As jobs are replaced by technology, those who lose their jobs will have to train themselves to do some other work. That’s the nature of the market. It’s not a socialist paradise where your job is guaranteed for life. Your job is guaranteed only as long as you can provide a useful service to consumers. And if someone creates a better or cheaper product, offers more useful services, or otherwise meets consumer needs better than you can, you’re going to be looking for a new job.
The natural trend, therefore, is for these disruptive new technologies to make workers more efficient and allow for greater production. The workweek should then be able to shrink as technology is embraced and capital replaces labor. Yes, the 4-hour work day may become a reality.
Even in industries that require staffing during store hours, say 8AM to 10PM, technology advances on the back end may be so great that customer-facing staff can still work 4-hour days and be better off than they are today working 8-hour shifts. As long as markets are allowed to function and governments don’t get involved to enact legislation that forces employers to employ more labor than they need, a 4-hour work day could one day become the norm, allowing all of society to make more productive and efficient use of human labor.