Who Cares About JetPacks? Whatever Happened to the 30-Hour Work Week?

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It's startling to read books about technology from the early to middle 20th century while working a twelve-hour day. Because of all the things that might have surprised the futurists of the mid-century, what Mother Jones calls The Great Speedup might have been atop the list. Technological optimists sold the world on automation by telling people it would create unimaginable amounts of leisure for them. The big question for the workers of the 21st-century would be how to spend their copious amounts of free time.

Take this passage from Human Robots in Myth and Science (1966) by University of Manchester professor, Jared Cohen.

What meaning will his occupation bear for the worker? Will it elicit his talents and energies? How will he devote his free time after a four- or five-hour stint of labour? Moreover, what, indeed, will be the significance for him of his leisure? Even if industry of the future could be purged of its monotony and meaninglessness and infused with some of the spontaneity of play, there will remain abundant scope for recreation by immersion in the imaginative life, in art, drama, dance, and a hundred other ways of transcending the constraints of daily life.

Let us assume that the working week, well before the end of the century, will not be more than thirty hours. What will people actually do in their free time?

Thirty hours, eh? Seems like most salaried types I know hit that every three days.

People like Cohen weren't nuts, though. The United States Senate passed a bill to mandate a 30-hour work week in 1933, only to have it run aground in the House without support from President Roosevelt.

But perhaps some people were more on the mark. A RAND report, as paraphrased in the book Your Flying Car Awaits, foretold a future in which "just 2 percent of the population would be needed to produce everything society needed, and only 'elites' would be able to find gainful employment."


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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