The Philosophical Arguments For a Shorter Work Week

What did Nikola Tesla or Bertrand Russell think of fewer working hours? Can a good life only come from work — and if so how much of it, and what kind?


How long was your work day today? Eight hours? Seven hours? Nine? How long is your working week? If you live in the United States you probably answered somewhere near 40 hours. If you live in Europe you probably answered a little less than that. If you were to ask a dozen people what they thought was the right amount of time to work, you would be likely to find a dozen different answers.   

The question of the proper work-life balance has puzzled thinkers from Moses and Marx, to Ford and Friedman. How much work is enough? How much is excessive? Who should do it? Can we work on the Sabbath?

It is this question of work-life balance that The Greens party of Australia seeks to answer, with its recent discussion as to the feasibility of a four-day work week or a six-hour day.We want to kick off a conversation about the future of work and start by questioning the entrenched political consensus that a good life can only come from more work, said the Leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale. "We rightly talk about the 16% of people who want to work more hours but we never hear about the more than one in four Australians who want to work less."

Alright, so what conversation does it wish to have? What are the facts?

While the effect of mandating a 40-ish hour week across the Western world over the last century didn’t end up causing the disaster predicted by many in the leisure class, the effects of reducing working time further have not been studied well enough to make an absolute judgement on the matter. The data is simply too limited. 

However, in Sweden, data from a recently ended two-year trial of a six-hour work day showed employees of a nursing home were happier, healthier, more productive, and less stressed as a result of the reduced hours, and were better able to carry out their duties. The clients agreed on the later point. However, the reduction in hours required increased hiring to cover the missing time, resulting in higher costs. Further experiments are ongoing in other locations and fields.

So, one example showed employees being less stressed and working better when given reduced hours, at the price of higher costs overall to hire more people to work. Are there any deeper arguments than this?

More philosophic arguments for and against a reduced working week have been made many times before. Obviously, anyone who feels that diligence is a virtue in itself would be at least mildly suspicious of the idea of reducing the standard workweek by such a fraction. In counter to this particular suggestion, some Australian politicians have raised the question of how public services would be funded with everybody working less. A question The Greens must answer if it wants its discussion to last long.

On a psychological note, in the dystopian novel Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley, the idea that humans need to work longer hours than is economically necessary is suggested by some of the characters, who point out that when the economy was made more efficient, workers went mad from the resulting free time.

Similar ideas, along with the specter of automation-driven unemployment, were presented in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. In a slightly happier place, St. Thomas More's Utopia, residents enjoy a six-hour work day, with many people selecting to work longer on their own accord.

On the other hand, British philosopher Bertrand Russell posited that, “Leisure is essential to civilization… and with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.” in his essay 'In Praise of Idleness', he argued for a four-hour workday along side scientific organization as a means to the end of both unemployment and overwork. Likewise, the great scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla saw the march of technology moving man towards a reduced work day rather than towards larger incomes.

The question of the proper number of working hours is one that has bothered economic and ethical thinkers for 2,000 years. The question of whether or not we can afford, or even should desire, to reduce the working week down further is one that is subject to debate and investigation. As automation continues to alter our economy, it is a debate that is more relevant than ever. 

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.