Autonomous machinery and smart technology have slowly begun integration within big business. From Amazon using autonomous warehouse vehicles to college campus delivery bots, innovation technology is everywhere. One place where people aren’t happy about artificial intelligence (AI) enhancement is the workplace. People fear that they will be replaced by machines. It’s a valid worry considering businesses seem to always be looking for ways to cut cost and make more money.
A proposal backed by distinguished British progressives makes the argument for 4-day work weeks that are set to be implemented by 2025. While many may be up in arms, a shorter work week boasts benefits for mental health, quality of life, and even accelerated productivity.
Aidan Harper, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, report editor, and founder of 4-Day Work Week, says, “We should accept automation as something that does increase productivity and recognize that that’s a good thing in an economy. It’s just that the proceeds of automation should be shared evenly—in the form of a working time reduction. Machines shoulder liberate us from work, not subject us to this ever-increasing inequality.”
Robots taking over the world is not a new concept, but one we’ve seen time and time again in books, TV shows, and films. The fear of being replaced by an automated machine once seemed quite foreign, but now with all the advances in technology, the fear seems to have gained traction. In the report on the “Shorter Working Week,” these tensions are noted and expressed in the quotation below:
“These new technologies are ‘both a promise and a threat.’ In the context of the shorter working week, automation holds the promise of reducing work time, thereby opening up the possibility of the maximization of autonomous time for individuals. However, this link between automation and freedom cannot and will not be facilitated without adequate state and policy intervention. The past century has shown us that automation technologies have more often than not been introduced by employers as a way of simply maximizing productivity without sharing the surplus time and/or the profits with employees. This trend will continue unless a practical and enforced link between automation and free time is constructed.”
Harper says, “It’s getting a lot of traction. The aim of the campaign, at its core, is to politicize the idea of working time as something we can change if we wanted to. To create the idea of working time reduction as common sense.”
The U.K. is poised to look at automation in a positive light. The conversation about a shortened work week is gained momentum and everyone from economists, to authors, and politicians have endorsed the report. In the U.S., automation is seen as a tornado, ready to wreak havoc on anything in its path.
The report has proposed steps that would implement the shortened work week and normalize it while disbanding misconceptions. Studies printed in the report show that “there is no correlation between long working hours and productivity—a comparison between countries and between firms shows this. Germany is more productive but works fewer hours on average than the U.K.”
Most of the opposition comes from the business community, worried that a shortened work week will affect their bottom line.
“When you take a historical perspective about this, it’s very revealing,” says Harper. “I found an op-ed in the New York Times from a hundred years ago or so, where the author was attacking the idea of moving to 5-day week from a 6-day week, and it’s literally exactly what the business owners are saying today about a 4-day week.”
If conversations surrounding automated equipment weren’t being controlled by big businesses, people might be less fearful particularly when they realize that a shortened work week would return the control and power back to workers.
Harper is insistent that, “Automation should be a good thing. Yet, we have this structure, a political and social system around us that makes automation seem like a threat rather than a promise.”