That’s the question posed by a recent editorial in The Boston Globe. A McKinsey & Co. study predicts that over the next 20 years robots will replace from 50 to 75 percent of workers in selected job functions. The Globe’s solution? Massive retraining, and the reframing of the workforce as lifelong learners. “College-educated and white-collar workers are likely to nimbly adapt,” claims the Globe, but this will be difficult for lower-level, less-educated workers. “It will require a fundamental shift in how we prepare kids and employees – and that shift needs to take root now.”
What happened to the idea that automation will lead to shorter hours? The Globe editorial reflects an enormous, national blind spot. What if, instead of spending the rest of our working lives retraining every 5 years, we accepted a shorter work week? The universal argument goes that, if we shrink the work week, then how can workers make a reasonable wage?
In the 1890s the average work week was about 65 hours. If we apply the above argument to oppose a shorter work week, then we should all still be working 65 hours per week, right? Besides, technology is supposed to be making us all more productive. If that’s true, then we should be rewarded by shorter hours that reflect that increased productivity.
Instead, wages are almost stagnant, and the work week is, if anything, increasing. It’s worth asking, Why?