What Are the Real Consequences of a 4-Hour Workweek? Work has become a four-letter word, but what will the net effect be on a workforce that clocks fewer hours, takes longer to master skills and 'opts out' of culture-shaping efforts?
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No one wants to work. Or at least that's what appears to be the case. On the heels of The Great Resignation, we have an uptick in interest in concepts introduced in the 2009 Jim Ferris book The 4-Hour Workweek. A workplace survey conducted by Eagle Hill Consulting found that 83% of employees favor a shortened workweek. In July 2021, a state representative from California proposed legislation that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours. The assumption is that people can work fewer hours and get the same amount done, but is that really true?
How long does it really take to innovate?
Malcolm Gladwell proposed a widely adopted standard for subject mastery, which sits at 10,000 hours. Most people believe it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. For the average professional working 40 hours a week for 48 weeks a year, this means that mastery is achieved after about five years. It stands to reason that the more complex a field is, the longer it could take to get to an "expert" level.
Based on these estimates, if people work in a field 30 hours a week, it takes closer to seven years to become a master. Shrink that further, and the timeline expands.
Myth: Technology means I can work less
The big addendum most people are using to justify doing less with the same results is technology. But any artificial intelligence (AI) or automation expert will be clear: Tech is meant to replace manual tasks, so that people can do complex tasks, not so that they can do nothing at all.
How long does it take to ideate and implement?
Humanity has progressed rapidly in the last 100 years, largely due to innovations in infrastructure (buildings, highways), technology (the internet, computers, now machine learning and AI), and manufacturing (machines, automations and new inventions). Novel medicines like vaccines have eradicated illnesses that reduced lifespans, making it possible to live longer and work harder. The cost of developing these catalyzing factors for humanity is greater than 30 hours a week, and there is proof to back that claim.
What are the work habits of high performers?
We're all familiar with the work ethic of modern high performers: Elon Musk works 80-100 hours a week; Tim Cook wakes up at 3:45 a.m.; Bill Gates worked 14-16 hours a day; the best athletes in the world train for several hours a day; and the most esteemed artists and creatives work for weeks on end to complete projects. Lest this list only address current trends, Albert Einstein worked 10 hours a day, six days a week; Winston Churchill's dictum was "action this day," and he was famous for working morning until night; and Robert Moses, the "master builder" of the 20th century, was an idealist with an indefatigable work ethic.
The culture conundrum
We, as a culture, want to think that we are too busy and don't rest enough. The general impression persists that "balanced" cultures take more time off than U.S.-based professionals. But what's at stake with this steady decline in work hours?
Great achievements simply take time. Time is the untradeable commodity of innovation. An argument could be made that the one thing that could take a culture of our size and development into a dark age is if people simply … stop working.
If, as was posited earlier, mastery takes 10,000 hours, and people are willing to work less and less, the length of time it takes to reach mastery in an individual career is lengthened. If the average duration of a career is around 35 years, and it takes someone 10 (rather than five) years to reach a state of mastery, what can be accomplished in the course of that career (especially during peak performance years) is decreased. The net loss of progress among millions of individuals would be substantial, even devastating, to the state of humanity.
The biggest problem
The pendulum swing of culture has taken people from reveling in personal accomplishments to reveling in personhood, full stop. In other words, "I am more than what I achieve." This is a fundamentally sound principle, but it is not the full picture, especially operating in a world of cause and effect. Our collective contributions are what push forward great ideas and revolutionary inventions. If a large number of individuals "opt out" of performing to their highest capacity, humanity will pay the price. We should care that this is the case because, unpopular though the idea may be, the world doesn't revolve around any single person. It takes all of us, laboring toward excellence, to build a brighter future.
Work is not a four-letter word
As humans regularly take stock of what makes us happy, "work" has been villainized. Work is the reason we have no balance in life; work is the reason we don't get to do what we enjoy; work is the reason we are tired and stressed. There is an inaccuracy here. It is not, in fact, work itself that we detest: It is the workplace. The workplace demands too much and gives too little.
Work itself is actually deeply fulfilling, and something that humans do every day, voluntarily, and with great joy. Rather than working less, people need to consider what work they are doing, and whether it is fulfilling. Competition drives innovation. Dedication and a strong work ethic are valuable traits that shouldn't be underestimated, especially when it comes to achievements that ensure the long-term wellbeing of every other individual on the planet. Some people will "opt out." Some people will live for the weekend and early retirement. But others, the ones with a real vision for creating something meaningful and leaving a legacy, will work hard … and not resent the labor that leads to greatness.