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Perpetual Consumption of our Working Days

I.

The mechanization of the processes within the pin factory has proven to surpass human competence in almost every labor-intensive skill. Machines have the ability to work fixedly without taking breaks or vacations; are capable of carrying out tasks with a high degree of quality and accuracy; are willing to work overtime without complaints; and, this is perhaps even more important, in less time than human workers, can produce more output.


The exponential rate of technological innovation which has accompanied the world since the first industrial revolution in the 18th century, with inventions like the steam locomotive and the modern assembly line all the way to the articulated robot arm and AI machine learning, has brought a persistent increase in the industrial efficiency of production.


In this train of thought, here is a relevant assumption: the two centuries’ steady supply of industrial innovation has increased the systematization of labor in such a way that the efficiency of contemporary production has proportionally reduced the total measure of human time spent on productive labor, that is, it has trimmed the average workday of human workers substantially.


But here is a relevant fact: the workday has increased since the Middle Ages, when workers worked less than half the days of the year. The average man in Medieval England received an 8-hour workday for 150 days a year; alternatively, the modern man contrasts this against the contemporary average of 240 workdays.


Surprisingly, the average workweek in the United States was 1.6 hours greater in 2000 than it was in 1970. In Canada, too, workers put in 13 hours more per year in 1999 than ten years back. Spain also experienced a surge in work hours after the arrival of Covid-19, where the workday had grown by 46 minutes in length. Belgium has experienced ups and downs in work hours since the 2000s; interestingly, workers had the same amount of hours per year in both 2005 and 2019. In the long-run, 15 years of idle improvement.


Yet, even if the length of the contemporary workday is broad in contrast to that of the middle ages, it is shorter than the average workday during the industrial revolution, where, in England, it reached a total of 14 hours per day, for 7 days per week. And, at least in Western countries, it wasn’t until the end of the 20th Century, in the 1980s, that the demand for 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, and 8 hours of sleep was achieved.

It would seem that, in the big picture, neither are we moving forwards nor backward, as, throughout history, the workday has not had a global generalized rate of change. Over any arbitrary period of time, it can be attributed to several variables that the estimate of work hours remains the same, decreases, or increases.


However, it is surprising that, in spite of the prominent magnitude of industrial capacity and productivity we possess today, the average of working hours per participant in the labor force remains so extensive and with poor change through the last two decades: the annual average working hours of OECD member states from 2001 to 2019 decreased only by 69 hours. All data forwards the picture of a pattern of progressive stagnation in the reduction of working time. Why has it stagnated?


II.

Robert Solow, the 1987 Nobel laureate in Economics, developed the idea that technological growth is the major driver when it comes to economic growth. His most important contribution was that he demonstrated that only a small proportion of annual growth, 13 percent, could be explained by increased inputs of labor and capital. While technological growth, understood as product and process improvements, made the crucial difference: a comprehensive 87 percent. Because of this insight, it follows that technological innovation is the key to economic growth.


Most people agree that these arguments are irrefutable. The United States is currently the world’s largest economy because it has maintained a growth rate of around 2% over the last 200 years. Economic growth is usually attributed to the growth of factors of production, and about 68% of economic growth in the United States can be ascribed to an increase in industrial productivity by technological innovation.


Working from the premise that these new technologies enhance efficiency by cutting the time human workers would normally spend on producing a particular volume of output, then, on the basis of how the extent of human time working remains about unchanged, one could say that there’s an increased volume of output.


There’s more: if we regard output as the scope of the production of goods, so must the input be the scope of consumption capacity. On this account, why is there a need to consistently extend the volume of output?

III.

First, the output of production reacts to the human struggle for subsistence, the segment of human activity which is exclusively occupied with preserving life through means of meeting their basic needs. This first scope of production is that which supplies the necessary volume of resources so as to satisfy the survival needs of the population. This quantum has a limit. Once the population finds themselves freed from the necessity of sustenance, then the limited capacity for subsistence is filled. Once this quantum of production is reached, production begins to react to new stimuli: the population’s need to consume. This second scope of production is that which supplies the commodities which go beyond the necessity of sole subsistence: consumer goods purchased on the basis of comfort, habit, gratification, impulse, whim, and vanity.

The capacity for consumption is linked to the individual, it is those who create the demand for these commodities. The means for consumption is money, which can be understood as individual freedom in the appropriation of goods. As a single individual, constrained by their budget, only has a limited amount of money, the individual desire can only be facilitated to a certain extent. Be that as it may, the reach of the capacity for work is defined by the amount of output that can be produced with limited resources, capital, and labor.


Yet the potential individual capacity for consumption is unlimited. Any surplus wealth will be consumed as a means of recreation when we understand that consumer commodities range from ice creams to news, from haircuts to cryptocurrencies. All these goods, even if they serve other purposes, such as resale or commercial, ultimately serve as means to satisfy the needs and wants of individual consumers; it is the individuals who are constantly committed to this, as enslaved by the necessity to consume.


Do we want to have an example of the limitlessness of consumption capacity? Let’s set it about medieval castles. This notion comprises one main element: the transformation of fixed private property into money or consumer goods.


A castle belonging to the nobility in the Middle Ages could only be obtained via inheritance. Due to the absence of this type of private estate in the system of commerce of goods, the ability to possess certain goods was primarily subject to the private property an individual could obtain by means of blood succession. This limitation on the free acquisition of certain fixed private properties was greatly reduced when the contemporary age introduced the possibility of trading these goods. In this manner, every private property can be converted into a type of exchangeable currency or consumption goods. Of course, there previously was a market for private property, but no there was no industry. There existed no real estate agents and brokers doing all the work for sellers and buyers. There were no home insurance services to cover damages, nor any residential condominiums maintained by homeowner associations. As the capacity for consumption expanded, the need for capital and labor to provide for such consumption expanded proportionally until reaching its productive limit.


This example can apply to any type of consumer goods and comes to show that over the years, generally, more goods are available for free acquisition, and the capacity for consumption grows. The production quantum follows as new industries, goods, and jobs are created.


IV.

Then, we reach a point in which the content of our understanding asks us to draw a conclusion: the root cause of the contemporary stagnation of the reduction of working time in modern society is the need to reconcile a limited capacity for work with an unlimited potential capacity for consumption.


As the potential for capacity for consumption is unlimited, production, though unlimited, must be accommodated by consistently extending the volume of output. In line with this, we understand the priority of economic progress is not the reduction of working time but the maximization of productive output, which has a vast need for capital accumulation, economies of scale, technological growth, mechanization, a general improvement in productive processes and, of course, the largest attainable extent of human labor, in urgency to meet an infinite and continually-adjusting quantum of capacity for consumption.


This way, the subject of a capacity of consumption that perpetually pushes towards growth is one that drags production accordingly.


V. Afterthought. So, under these circumstances, what predictions can we make for the future? There’s one main factor to be considered: In 1975, almost 60 years ago, the human population was only approaching 4 billion. Nowadays, nearing 7.8 billion people, evidently, the population has grown significantly. This abundant increase has correspondingly raised the capacity for consumption. Yet, for the last few years, there has been a slight decrease in the population growth rate. It is anticipated that the human population will grow at a slower pace for the next few years and is finally expected to decline by around 5 million every year after 2086. What effect will this have on the total capacity for consumption? This decline in population growth rate, although indifferent towards individual capacity for consumption, will reciprocally bear a decline in the growth rate of general capacity for consumption. If this model sustains after the year 2086, the population will decrease naturally for a long period of time; we might bear witness to a natural reduction of the otherwise perpetual consumption of our working days.

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