The 30-hour workweek: Often celebrated by employees, feared by business representatives. Discussions about a shorter workweek have been ongoing for a long time and don't seem to be ending.
What future scenarios can arise from changes in working hours, and is it realistic that we will all only work three hours a day in the future?
2030: Working three hours a day. This was at least the vision painted by John Maynard Keynes not quite a century ago. He was a British economist who presented his visions on working hours in 1930 in a remarkable essay titled "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren."
In the prevailing economic crisis at that time, Keynes dared to take a positive look into the future and speculated that due to progress, increasing productivity, and rising wealth, "the economic problem should be solved within a hundred years."
"Keynes' assumption: The biggest problem in 2030 is how to spend leisure time."
Indeed, Keynes was convinced that in the foreseeable future, one could easily earn a living in a fifteen-hour workweek, and the challenge would then be more about how to fill the free time.
Not working less, but more flexibly
What has become true in the generation of grandchildren so far? Disappointingly little. While unions repeatedly call for a shorter workweek with full wage compensation, there are indeed many negative indicators of a long workweek: Those who work many overtime hours are demonstrably more dissatisfied and also more frequently ill.
Additionally, long working hours fuel the precarious job market situation, according to employee representatives. Advocates for companies often argue against a reduction in working hours, stating that the focus should be on making working hours more flexible rather than shorter, in order to improve the balance between work and private life.
Shorter working hours, on the other hand, would allegedly drive industry out of Austria and consequently lead to the loss of numerous jobs. Accordingly, the achieved successes so far are minimal.
The 60-hour workweek
Indeed, since Keynes' essay, working hours have consistently decreased—until the 1970s, after which they have stagnated. Around 1900, people in Europe worked approximately 60 hours from Monday to Saturday; it was only since the late 1950s that Austria adopted the five-day workweek.
However, in 2018, Austria raised the maximum daily working hours to twelve hours and the maximum weekly hours to 60. Encouragingly, in the same year, the first Austrian company introduced a 30-hour workweek (with full pay).
What Keynes incorrectly predicted? The reason of human beings, as many cannot or do not want to afford working less. Negatively formulated, one could also call it greed. People want to earn more money with more work, and entrepreneurs want to increase profits.
"The love of money is detestable!"
While the British economist did indeed observe the sometimes pathological love of money among people, he believed that once basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, etc., were satisfied, individuals would turn to non-economic purposes. Keynes was therefore an optimist and a philanthropist of the highest order. Unfortunately, he was wrong on this point!
"Higher productivity = shorter working hours with the same income. A simplistic calculation?"
In principle, the calculation is quite simple: If productivity increases, working hours should decrease while maintaining the same income. However, society must organize itself, and that is the great challenge, given the presence of traits such as envy and greed.
Working only 3 hours a day - or maybe not...
Here lies Keynes' mistake: The length of the working hours is not related to productivity, but indeed to the level of income. The wages of most working people simply have not been increased enough to afford them more leisure time.
Moreover, in a society that still highly values performance, having no or little work is often seen as a curse rather than a privilege. In a time when more and more overtime is included in all-in contracts, and at the same time burnout rates are soaring, this should give us something to ponder.