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Technology Could Enable the Four-Day Work Week

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Carlos Luna/Flickr
Carlos Luna/Flickr

Well not exactly. But Larry Page, co-founder of Google, does tell us that working a 40-hour week is an out-moded employment model. He believes that through smart design and technology we could work a four-day week or less. Now, with over $32 billion in the bank it is easy for Page to make such lofty assertions, but he might have a point.

Working less is nothing new. Today, Canadians work an average of 36.6 hours a week. A century ago it was an exhausting 105 hours of toil, seven days per week.

This transformation had its origins in the industrial revolution where new manufacturing processes vastly increased the production output of a single person. However, it was also a time of child labour and 16 hour workdays, and not until the late 1900's were early unionized movements successful in lobbying for an 8-hour day

The industrial revolution was an engineering revolution, but also one where design played a critical role in increasing our efficiency over the past 100 years or so. Today, we are bombarded daily with the latest tech innovations from Seoul, Seattle and Cupertino CA, but consider the time-saving design and engineering marvels of the past century that we now take for granted -- the modern shower (1899), vacuum cleaner (1901), massed produced automobile (1908), washing machine (1908), highway (1911), refrigerator (1913), electric razor (1932), personal computer (1957), jet airplane (1958), cell phone (1973) and the internet (1983).

These time-saving devices, combined with a shorter work week, are creating the next great revolution opportunity -- what should we do with all the free time?

We're already seeing volunteerism at a 30-year high, up more than 32 per cent in the US. Businesses such as insurance giant Manulife Financial are even embedding this ethos into the workplace through their Community Spirit program, which offers employees a paid day off to volunteer for a charity. Personal fitness has become a priority for many, with physical activity rates up in Canada by 11 per cent in the past 20 years, and wellness tourism has quickly become a huge, $400 billion global market.

Here too, design and technology have been important, launching the age of the entrepreneur, where interests become careers and the beach is the new office. Working less frees us to think more, which is where creativity and innovation begin. We are seeing this already with solar technology that can reduce greenhouse emissions, electric vehicles that reduce our reliance on oil and clean water systems that are vastly increasing access to a healthy water supply, helping reduce the global prevalence of diarrhea by 26 per cent.

By almost any measure, a reduced work week has been good for society. Reducing it further should not be cause for panic. In fact, while the average hours worked has dropped by almost two-thirds over the past century, employment has stayed remarkably constant. The UK unemployment rate was 5.1 per cent in 1907 and 5.3 per cent in 2007. Rather, we should recognize this as a continuum that will allow us to be productive in other ways, improving our own well-being as well as that of our community and beyond.

These may be seen as the hippy ideals of another generation, but 47 years after the Summer of Love when Timothy Leary urged us to turn on, tune in, drop out, it might just be that design and technology are combining to make a hippy of us all.

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