Reading: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

This piece from 1932 argues that we should not invest our improvement in productivity into producing more and more goods with the same long work hours but should change work life so people have more free time.
Russell states that this lesson became very clear in WWI, where workers were able to easily enjoy a good living standard and produce a big surplus for the war.
So what has happened since then?

Let’s look at the numbers for weekly work hours in Germany:
1825: 82 hours
1875: 72 hours
1900: 60 hours (in 6 days)
1913: 57 hours
1918: 8 hours per day
1932: 42 hours
1941: 50 hours (second world war)
1950: 48 hours
1956: change to 5 days per week
1965: 40 hours (printing industry)
1967: 40 hours (metal industry)
1984: 38,5 hours (metal industry, also transition to flexible working hours, and printing industry)
1995: 35 hours (printing, metal and electricity industry)
Since the mid-90es weekly working hours have been on the rise again.
(via Wikipedia )

However, if we look at the unemployment statistics we see percentaged unemployment has been on the rise.
There are some problems with comparability due to Germany being divided until 1991, and rebuilding from WWII required more than just sustainaning work, of course. And there were business fluctuations.

But even this very crude analysis hints at the fact that the development up to now is not ideal.
People still work long hours and despite of this, some cases still live below the poverty level, while at the same time others are without a job and suffer because of it. Workers complain when robots are build to take over their hard and repetitive work because they fear unemployment. The unemployment statistics are ceremonially announced each year, and every drop is celebrated. Politicians justify many things with “it will create jobs”, even if there are no other points. Unemployed people are looked down on, and, of course there are many major disadvantages apart from that.

Work is seen as a privilege and an obligation, not just for maintaining basic living expenses but in it’s own right.

And at the same time, we find that we will have serious troubles with the planet and it’s ressources some time in the future. In some cases we already experience them, in other cases it might take a few centuries.
(These things, mind, are not a problem for the planet or life itself. They are mainly a problem for our civilisations, since our societies are adapted to this situation. Humanity should be able to adapt anyhow, but it will be very painful.)
Making the production of more stuff a priority just seems silly in this context, especially if it is disposable short-lived stuff.

There is one point maybe justifying the whole thing in Western Europe, however, and that’s the low birth rate. If fewer young people have to sustain more old people, the whole thing might actually play out.
We will also need to develop sustainable machinery and power sources that do not further our planet problem. It will be seen how well this can be done and how soon.

The situation is different for developing countries. Their societies still long for wealth and productivity is considerably lower than in western societies. If they continue to use the western model for their development the points made might become interesting for them in the future. Maybe they can find other models, too, though.

It’s an interesting and important topic and it’s sad to see that it has not been discussed a lot lately; the devotion to Work has rather risen than fallen the last few years.

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