from the world's big
We have the tools and technology to work less and live better
We can produce more stuff with less labor. So why are we still working?
In 1930, a year into the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes sat down to write about the economic possibilities of his grandchildren.
Despite widespread gloom as the global economic order fell to its knees, the British economist remained upbeat, saying that the 'prevailing world depression … blind[s] us to what is going on under the surface'. In his essay, he predicted that in 100 years' time, ie 2030, society would have advanced so far that we would barely need to work. The main problem confronting countries such as Britain and the United States would be boredom, and people might need to ration out work in 'three-hour shifts or a 15-hour week [to] put off the problem'. At first glance, Keynes seems to have done a woeful job of predicting the future. In 1930, the average worker in the US, the UK, Australia and Japan spent 45 to 48 hours at work. Today, that is still up around 38 hours.
Keynes has a legendary stature as one of the fathers of modern economics – responsible for much of how we think about monetary and fiscal policy. He is also famous for his quip at economists who deal only in long-term predictions: 'In the long run, we are all dead.' And his 15-hour working week prediction might have been more on the mark than it first appears.
If we wanted to produce as much as Keynes's countrymen did in the 1930s, we wouldn't need everyone to work even 15 hours per week. If you adjust for increases in labour productivity, it could be done in seven or eight hours, 10 in Japan (see graph below). These increases in productivity come from a century of automation and technological advances: allowing us to produce more stuff with less labour. In this sense, modern developed countries have way overshot Keynes prediction – we need to work only half the hours he predicted to match his lifestyle.
Weekly hours of work required, per worker, to match output of average British worker in 1930.
The progress over the past 90 years is not only apparent when considering workplace efficiency, but also when taking into account how much leisure time we enjoy. First consider retirement: a deal with yourself to work hard while you're young and enjoy leisure time when you're older. In 1930, most people never reached retirement age, simply labouring until they died. Today, people live well past retirement, living a third of their life work-free. If you take the work we do while we're young and spread it across a total adult lifetime, it works out to less than 25 hours per week. There's a second factor that boosts the amount of leisure time we enjoy: a reduction in housework. The ubiquity of washing machines, vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens means that the average US household does almost 30 hours less housework per week than in the 1930s. This 30 hours isn't all converted into pure leisure. Indeed, some of it has been converted into regular work, as more women – who shoulder the major share of unpaid domestic labour – have moved into the paid labour force. The important thing is that, thanks to progress in productivity and efficiency, we all have more control over how we spend our time.
So if today's advanced economies have reached (or even exceeded) the point of productivity that Keynes predicted, why are 30- to 40-hour weeks still standard in the workplace? And why doesn't it feel like much has changed? This is a question about both human nature – our ever-increasing expectations of a good life – as well as how work is structured across societies.
Part of the answer is way-of-life inflation: humans have an insatiable appetite for more. Keynes spoke of solving 'the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence', but few people would choose to settle for mere subsistence. Humans live on a hedonic treadmill: we always want more. Rich Westerners could easily work 15 hours a week if we forgo the trappings of modern life: new clothes and Netflix and overseas holidays. This might seem trite when talking about consumer goods, but our lives are better across many other important dimensions, too. The same logic that applies to Netflix also applies to vaccines, refrigerators, renewable energy and affordable toothbrushes. Globally, people enjoy a standard of living much higher than in 1930 (and nowhere is this more true than in the Western countries that Keynes wrote about). We would not be content with a good life by our grandparents' standards.
We also have more people working in jobs that are several steps removed from subsistence production. As economies become more productive, employment shifts from agriculture and manufacturing to service industries. Thanks to technological and productivity progress, we can deal with all of our subsistence needs with very little labour, freeing us for other things. Many people today work as mental health counsellors, visual effects artists, accountants, vloggers – and all of them do work that is not required for subsistence. Keynes's essay argues that more people will be able to pursue 'the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose' in the future, implicitly framing these activities as separate from the menial world of subsistence work. In actual fact, the world of work has simply expanded to include more activities – such as care work, the arts and customer service – that did not feature significantly in Keynes's estimation of solving the problem of economic subsistence.
Finally, persistent social inequality also helps the 40-hour week persist. Many people have to work 30- to 40-hour weeks simply to get by. As a society, on aggregate, we are able to produce enough for everyone. But unless the distribution of wealth becomes more equal, very few people can afford to cut back to a 15-hour working week. In some countries, such as the US, the link between productivity and pay has broken: recent increases in productivity benefit only the top tier of society. In his essay, Keynes predicted the opposite: a levelling and equalisation, where people would work to ensure other peoples' needs were met. In one sense, you can see this in the social safety nets that didn't exist back in 1930. Programmes such as social security and public housing help people get over the low bar of the 'economic problem' of base subsistence, but they are insufficient to properly lift people out of poverty, and insufficient to meet Keynes's ideal of giving everyone a good life.
In his essay, Keynes disdained some of the core tendencies of capitalism, calling the money motive 'a somewhat disgusting morbidity' and bemoaning that 'we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities'. Of course, these human qualities – 'avarice and usury and precaution' – drive progress forward. And striving for progress is no bad thing: even Keynes acknowledged that these tendencies are necessary to 'lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity'. But at some point we should look back to see how far we have come. Keynes was right about the amazing advancements his grandchildren would enjoy, but wrong about how this would change overall patterns of work and distribution, which remain stubbornly fixed. It doesn't need to be so.
In developed countries, at least, we have the technology and tools for everyone to work less and still live highly prosperous lives, if only we structure our work and society towards that goal. Today's discussions about the future of work quickly end up in fanciful predictions of total automation. More likely, there will continue to be new and varied jobs to fill a five-day work week. And so today's discussions need to move beyond the old point about the marvels of technology, and truly ask: what is it all for? Without a conception of a good life, without a way to distinguish progress that's important from that which keeps us on the hedonic treadmill, our collective inertia will mean that we never reach Keynes's 15-hour working week.
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Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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