This is the first in a series of three articles exploring the future of work. To start, I chose a personal experience that illustrates the complex relationship among work, productivity and well-being.
It was midafternoon in Tokyo on Friday March 11, 2011. Forty-five minutes after the Tōhoku earthquake struck, the first three aftershocks, all exceeding magnitude 7, had exhausted themselves. The Shiodome Media Tower, the headquarters of the IT company I worked at and where I was that day, continued to sway like a giant 34-story metronome for what seemed like an incredibly long time.
My colleague, whom I’ll call Makoto, went into overdrive: looking out for others, organizing things, helpfully suggesting I should go back to my hotel, as clearly no more normal tasks would be achieved that day. Or indeed the following week: on Saturday March 12, the Fukushima nuclear power plant blew up. I flew back to London on Monday. For the next few weeks, Makoto maintained a punishing pace, throwing himself into work, dedicating countless hours to play whatever part he could in the reconstruction effort from within the firm.
I never saw Makoto again, for by April 29, 2011, another Friday, he was dead. His wife found him in bed that morning. Karōshi — or overwork death — was the suspected cause. He was 42. Just like many of their counterparts in other Asian nations, Japanese salaried men and women are extremely loyal to their employers and work very hard. So much so that the Ministry of Health defines a Karōshi Line (a 60-hour workweek) above which workers’ health is at risk. That line is set at 80 hours of overtime per month, like working 6 weeks in a 4-week month.
Tragic as Makoto’s death was, there’s something else about it that’s senseless. From a macroeconomic standpoint, working hard does not seem to make any difference. For the past 15 years, measured in gross domestic product (GDP) per hours worked, a key metric for productivity, Japan’s performance has almost perfectly been tracking the average 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Is the future of work about working less?
Contrast this with France, a country where a 35-hour workweek was introduced in 2002. Its GDP per hours worked topped Japan’s until 2010, when in fact the 35-hour week regulation was relaxed somewhat. The two countries have been pretty much on par ever since, reaching $106 in 2017.
In seeking to establish that less work is more, the list of country comparisons could go on. But for me, Korea is the most informative example. Alongside a hard-work, long-hour ethic, Korea also enjoys, according to the World Economic Forum, the world champion position for robot workers, with 631 robots per 100,000 human workers in 2016. That’s over eight times the world average. It has led to an incredible acceleration in productivity. Its GDP per hours worked, which lagged Japan and France by more than $25 in 2000, was more than $10 higher in 2017. (We’ll come back in the second article of this series to the increasing role of automation in the workplace.)
What about the microeconomic level? Could your business work less and achieve the same or more? From New Zealand to the United Kingdom, stories of organizations that have introduced a 4-day week are getting a lot of airtime. Employee satisfaction and, yes, productivity, are up. Stress levels are down. In a 2015 column, the London-based The Guardian newspaper declared that it was time to assert that we don’t live to work.
Working less … or not at all!
And if working 4 days a week is better than 5, what about 3 days, or no days at all?
Along with a few countries like Switzerland and France, which have considered paying people a universal basic income (known as UBI) regardless of whether they work or not, Finland has recently completed a 2-year pilot. Every month, 2,000 unemployed Finns received 560 euros ($630), tax-free. Echoing the trend picked up in the 4-day week experiments, stress levels of the individuals taking part in the UBI exercise went down, and as Wired magazine reported, their trust in others and in institutions went up.
This trend toward less work may well prefigure a future world where work is carried out by machines, while humans are paid to live a life of leisure. My next article delves into how this might unfold.