What a 15-hour work week means for startups

In 1930, in the throes of the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes published an essay he’d been working on since before the stock market crash titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” In it, Keynes made two audacious claims, especially given the tattered state of the economy: that economic output would grow about sevenfold by 2030, and as a result we’d only need to work about 15 hours per week.

We’re nearing the due date of Keynes’ claims, and if they’re accurate, we may have to rethink the very nature of work. The silver lining for startups is that many of the changes necessary to adapt to a Keynesian future are things that startups are already doing.

Was Keynes right?

Before we go remaking work itself, let’s check in on how Keynes’s predictions have shaken out thus far. On the economic growth prediction, he was pretty close. By per capita U.S. GDP, we’re about six times more prosperous than we were in 1930 (around $11,623 in 1930 (in 2017 dollars) vs. $59,609 this year)—and we’ve still got 13 more years to go before hitting the century mark on Keynes’s prediction.

On this second point, that big economic growth combined with rapid technological advancement would lead to way less work, and way more leisure, he was half right. The pace of innovation in technology has indeed continued to accelerate, which has unlocked steady increases in productivity over the past 85 years (though that may be slowing). But work? We still work—and work and work.

Even Keynes’s closest living relatives (it turns out he didn’t have any kids of his own, so no grandkids, either, obviously) routinely put in 50-hour work weeks. His grand-nephew, a retired professor, did manage to get his work down to 15 hours… per day.

And yet, top economic thinkers are today making the same predictions that Keynes made in 1930. Billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma told CNBC earlier this year that he thinks gains from artificial intelligence will bless us all with much shorter work weeks: “I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week,” he said.

So what gives? Why do we still work so many hours even as we keep promising that a life of leisure is coming just around the corner? If advances in AI finally bring about Keynes’ utopian vision, what does it mean for a startup ecosystem grounded in a mostly ubiquitous bargain made between founders and employees: work harder and more than you’d have to in most corporate jobs, for a shot at outsized rewards?

Why we work (so much)

There are a number of theories about why we continue to work so much despite technological gains that would seem to make this less necessary. In the 2008 book “Revisiting Keynes,” economists grapple with how it was that Keynes was so prescient when it came to economic gains, but so off the mark when it came to what that meant for work.

Many of the theories suggested in the book are variations of an overarching theme: we simply want to work. Either we’re driven by a desire to outdo our peers, so we work more to “keep up with the Joneses” (busyness itself has even become a status symbol), or by an unquenchable thirst for discovery. Why take time away from work when there’s so much left to accomplish?

These theories make three assumptions about our nature: one, that we’ve developed a culture of consumption; two, that we’re consummate explorers; and three, that our sense of self is rooted in what we do. The latter ideas track with what drives entrepreneurs to work long hours while taking huge risks. Research suggests that serial founders are driven by a desire to innovate and succeed at new things.

Even as technology would theoretically allow us to let up on the work pedal, so far, our nature and culture have compelled us to keep going anyway.

Why work less

It’s clear that technical advancements and productivity growth that might finally make the Keynesian 15-hour work week plausible, are likely to be coming soon, in large part because of AI and automation. Intelligent agents are already starting to free us from many of the mundane tasks that consume so much of our time. The back and forth of meeting scheduling takes about 17 minutes on average per meeting, and an AI personal assistant like Amy is already saving people hours each week. With all that extra time, we could spend more of our days on the creative aspects of our job or on leisure activities. But why should we even want that?

From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, numerous studies show that working less is actually a good thing for both health and productivity. While most studies don’t deal with the extremely minimal working hours Keynes was talking about, data clearly shows that the hustle often associated with modern startup life—80 hour work weeks, eating all three meals at your desk—is bad for you. Workaholics tend to have increased risk for things like stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and depression, and yet they don’t actually enjoy any real productivity gains.

The available research indicates that working less might be better for us mentally and physically, without requiring much tradeoff in productivity (especially when paired with the technological gains expected by Keynes and promised by things like artificial intelligence and machine automation).

Regardless of whether ultra-short working weeks are a good idea, it’s extremely plausible that they’re something startup founders and CEOs will have to reckon with.

Building a startup in Keynesian world

The technologies that will make Keynes’ prediction a possibility will also require company leaders to reevaluate their conceptions of work. Most of us still organize our work days based on concepts codified during the industrial revolution. As technology forces changes in the nature of our work, it will be up to company founders and CEOs to redesign our approach to work.

Parkinson’s law says even as technology makes full modern work weeks unnecessary, if we keep showing up at the office for 40 hours per week, we’ll find a way to fill those hours. That’s probably not the best use of that extra time, and more importantly for company leaders, not reducing work time could make it harder to retain employees. Millennials, who will make up 75% of the workforce in 2025, cite meaningful work as one of the key motivators for accepting a job, often more than pay. A PwC study also found that many millennials seek schedule flexibility at work. It will be hard to keep employees happy if they’re asked to spend 50+ hours per week on 15 hours of work.

That changes the very nature of the usual startup bargain, which typically goes something like “you (employee) give me 80 hours a week for four years (vesting timetable), and I (founder) give you a shot at real money.”

Competing for top talent in a world where less work and more leisure is a possibility will put a greater emphasis on values alignment. For millennials who will yearn for their work to be challenging and meaningful, filling a 20th century work week with only a few hours of engaging work won’t cut it. Startups CEOs will need to rethink what they ask of employees and also what employees get for their time.

The good news here is that startups already do passion really well. Startups tend to have a clear clearer conception of what they stand for than 30 or 50 year old companies.

Keynes’s prediction rests upon the idea that even if the amount of available employment dwindles, the economic gains would be spread out so that everyone enjoys more leisure time. Startups are well positioned to compete in an environment like this, potentially enabled by innovative new company ownership models or a wealth redistribution scheme like universal basic income.

Along with meaningful work and flexibility, millennials desire upward mobility (not necessarily in income, but in skills and responsibilities). In a Keynesian society where money and stability are more of an afterthought, startups can deliver on the things millennials desire most.

Of course, there’s certainly no guarantee that AI will lead to less work. x.ai CEO Dennis Mortensen recently argued in a post on Quartz that AI will lead to work that will emphasize our most human qualities. Previous technological revolutions in agriculture, manufacturing, and information technology didn’t cause mass unemployment. There’s just as much reason to think that the AI revolution will similarly lead to the invention of new jobs for people that we haven’t thought of yet. But it does seem at least plausible that if we desire to live in a society with less total employment and more time for leisure, AI (and other technologies) could make that possible over the next couple of decades. Building a company in a world with less work will be very different than doing so today. Startups should be up to the challenge.


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