Mises Wire

Will the Work Day Shrink to Four Hours?

Last week Ryan McMaken commented on Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s prediction that our grandchildren’s work day would shrink to four hours. I agree with Ryan’s assessment of Ma’s prediction, supported with the facts about how many fewer hours the average work day is today compared with the past. But looking at averages can be deceiving. The work day hasn’t shrunk for everyone, and won’t shrink for many.

For people engaged in manual labor, or whose jobs just involve following the instructions of their supervisors, a shorter work day is feasible and probably desirable. For knowledge workers, work time adds to their human capital, so knowledge workers who want to get ahead must work long hours.

Cashiers and assembly line workers could work shorter hours without reducing their hourly output, and if shorter hours reduced fatigue, their hourly output might even rise. But jobs like corporate CEO just can’t be divided and maintain the same level of productivity. CEOs make decisions that have huge impacts on the direction of their companies, and the more time the CEO spends gathering information and assessing alternatives, the more productive the CEO will be.

Worker productivity often depends on tacit knowledge which cannot effectively be communicated to others. The person with the knowledge is the only one who can use it.  Workers in those positions cannot work shorter hours and maintain the productivity of workers who work longer hours.

Even secretaries will often be more productive if they have an understanding about how an office works and what has happened throughout the work day. A secretary in the office all day will have a better understanding of its activities that one who comes in for the afternoon and may not know what happened in the office that morning.

Knowledge workers will be more productive if they work a full work day, which means that a knowledge worker who works an eight-hour day cannot be replaced by two workers who work four hours each. The work day won’t shrink for ambitious knowledge workers who want to get ahead.

Why do corporations pay such high salaries for experienced CEOs who have been out of school for decades when they could more cheaply hire new Harvard MBAs who have the most up-to-date education? The reason is that years of experience have produced tacit knowledge that cannot be gained through the education system. Someone working four hours a day will accumulate only half the experience of someone working eight hours a day, and we know that in some occupations, 60 to 70 hour work weeks are the norm.

For some jobs, a four hour work day is very feasible, but in a knowledge economy, many jobs will continue to demand longer hours.

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