The Real Four-Hour Workweek by Justin Douglas

[Ed. Note: With the author’s permission, I’m re-publishing essays from his former site asobinomics.net, as they originally appeared in 2012. Here’s the third and final one in the series!]

Some years ago, I was at the bookstore and came across Tim Ferriss’ best-selling book, The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. You’ve probably heard of it. For me, at the time a liberal arts major who was anxious about work and the meaning thereof — and, more urgently, soon to graduate — the promise of the book’s subtitle was very enticing indeed. However, I ended up returning it, finding the book disingenuous in the end, for some reason that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Since then, I’ve realized what it was that I found so troubling about The Four-Hour Work Week, which seems painfully obvious to me now, in the aftermath of the financial crisis: it’s the part about “joining the new rich.”

This is the method he prescribes: Set up a business that runs itself with very little ongoing involvement from you, hire people in India to take care of the grunt work remotely for cheap wages, and laugh all the way to the bank. Then, once you’re bored, sell the business, leaving your hired help to fend for themselves, and begin the next endeavor. Lather, rinse, repeat until you have accumulated enough to fund your ideal lifestyle.

Doesn’t sound much different from the “currently rich,” does it?

Now, Ferriss isn’t completely off-base. He is right to assert that time, in its increasing scarcity, is fast replacing money as the new measure of wealth in the 21st century, because no matter how much money you have, it’s meaningless without the time to enjoy it. Another point that he (and the “lifestyle design” movement that his book jump-started) gets right is that work is merely a means, not an end. But even though his advice appeals to the independent and rebellious American spirit, it’s not really an escape from the status quo. In fact, by taking advantage of the system — or better yet, capitalizing on the opportunities it offers — it actually reinforces it. As an economic philosophy, it’s quite contemptible: “A better world, but just for me.”

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The idea of a “four-hour work week” is not new. In fact, more than a few prominent thinkers predicted a future with less work and more leisure — not only for themselves, or for the opportunistic and industrious, but for everyone. For instance, economist John Maynard Keynes laid out his vision of a post-scarcity future in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930):

[I]n our own lifetimes… we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed… Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

It’s a shame that this essay was completely forgotten amidst the Depression, in response to which the prevailing order heeded his more immediately useful and “rational” advice to stimulate the economy by lowering interest rates. Meanwhile, just two years later, philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his classic essay In Praise of Idleness (1932), described a kind of situation that is all too familiar to us today:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

The answer is yes: That such a system has persisted for eighty more years.

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Keynes and Russell believed that in the future (i.e., now), machines would not enslave us, but rather liberate us, by doing most and eventually all of the work required to fulfill our needs. They probably weren’t the only ones. Yet no political party, even on the left — or especially on the left, what with their dogma of jobs for all — has ever campaigned, or seemingly would ever campaign, on a platform of liberation.

And the liberation I’m talking about is not the ”freedoms” we blindly claim as our American birthright, because freedom, as Orwell wrote, is slavery. Does obesity reflect a freedom from government interference in one’s eating habits or a dearth of affordable healthy food? Does the current sum of student loan debts — which, by the way, even death won’t clear — reflect a freedom of school choice or the government’s refusal to provide its citizens with a real education?

More to the point, does a “flexible” job market give individuals the freedom to change jobs or does it legitimize a widening caste-like divide between the overworked and the jobless? Is globalization freedom of capital, or is it just a way to enslave the people of the South and hand pink slips to the people of the North?

No, when I say liberation, I (and Keynes and Russell) mean liberation from the hamster wheel of work, striving, busy-ness, and consumerism. This is what Four-Hour Work Week promises but ultimately fails to deliver. The book presents you with the freedom for you to become a small-scale global capitalist whose throne rests on the backs of wage-slaves in Mumbai — who, by the way, are the ones actually doing your work. It doesn’t question the morality of the system that makes this possible.

Achieving a true four-hour work week will require more than business acumen. We need a collective vision of a future where work is just one part of a balanced, meaningful life, and we need collective action like the kind that won previous generations Saturdays and Sundays off and limited the work week to forty hours.

We need a grassroots movement to lift the idea of work-sharing out of obscurity (i.e., debates among economists) and present it in the public discourse as a viable solution to our unemployment crisis. Jobs cannot be created out of nothing. The establishment refuses to listen to pleas to “share the wealth,” so how about sharing the work? That’s the best step we can take now toward a future where we “live wisely and agreeably and well.”

E-mail author Justin Douglas at: tabidots at gmail dot com.

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