Why Larry Page’s four-day week is still science fiction

We should all work a little less. Not less hard, but simply fewer hours. Twenty four fewer, to be precise.

That’s what Google co-founder Larry Page says, anyway. He used an interview last week to suggest cutting the 40-hour working week to four days, promoting a healthier work-life balance, adding that machine learning is replacing jobs we once needed humans to do.

I would love to work four days a week instead of five, but as a journalist I’d struggle to support myself on the corresponding salary. Not to mention the fact that the news would carry on without me regardless.

But as of the end of June, the flexible working law that previously only applied to carers and parents now extends to all of us, so we all now have the right to ask our employer for the ability to work from home, part-time, or different hours.

But that doesn’t mean our bosses will let us. As Page suggested last week, what we need is a culture change.

It’s worth noting that what we consider normal working hours were first instituted in the Industrial Revolution, to spare exploited factory workers from 14-hour days.

Technology meant those kind of hours were no longer necessary, so it stands to reason that as technology improves, our working hours should reduce.

In Iain Banks’s post-scarcity science fiction series about the Culture, this utopian civilisation is so advanced that no one needs to work anymore: artificially intelligent ‘Minds’ do all the heavy lifting.

That’s not to say that people then laze about: they feel useful in a variety of ways, from exploring their wildest hedonistic fantasies, to playing board games professionally, to undertaking contact missions with alien species.

While we might not be there yet, the rise of machine learning means a lot of jobs humans used to do can be outsourced to robots. So why can’t we all make ourselves useful in other ways, in our own time?

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