A Better Argument for Working Less
What gets lost in conversations about four-day workweeks
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If you want to understand work culture in America, you have to understand how one man looked at his stopwatch. Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856 to rich Quaker parents. Rather than become a lawyer like his Princeton-educated father, Taylor opted for a manufacturing job at Midvale Steel, where he was promoted from time clerk to machinist to machine shop foreman and, eventually, to chief engineer—all before he turned 30. At Midvale, Taylor noticed how some of his coworkers put in minimal effort, which he took to be a personal affront.
As he advanced in leadership, Taylor dedicated himself to righting the injustice. He wanted to figure out how to squeeze the most work out of every worker. Taylor used his stopwatch to study the efficiency of both the machines and their operators on the factory floor. He broke down each job into discrete actions—pick up a piece of metal, place the metal on the lathe, mark where to cut—and then measured how long it took to complete each action. Taylor saw each action as an opportunity to maximize efficiency, and thus save the firm money.
After 12 years at Midvale and a few years working for a large paper mill operator, Taylor opened up his own consulting business to bring his “scientific management” philosophy to the masses. Businesses hired Taylor to study their workers and optimize their workflows. But there was a problem with Taylor’s “scientific” approach: He notoriously fudged the numbers, lied to clients, and inflated reports of his own success. One client, Bethlehem Steel, fired Taylor after his recommendations didn’t actually yield any increases in profit or efficiency.
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But that didn’t stop Taylor from preaching his gospel to anyone who would listen. His skill as a writer and marketer trumped the unreliability of his data. He published multiple books and traveled around the country to broadcast his ideas. The private sector became enraptured with the belief that implementing the right management system was the only barrier to maximizing efficiency. Influential figures, from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to H. L. Gantt (the inventor of the Gantt chart), championed Taylor’s work. So did Peter Drucker, “the father of modern management.” He famously said:
“Darwin, Marx, Freud form the trinity often cited as the ‘makers of the modern world.’ Marx would be taken out and replaced by Taylor if there were any justice in the world.”
Taylor’s scientific management approach still reverberates through much of the global economy—especially in the manufacturing and service sectors. But today, instead of managers holding stopwatches, it’s often faceless technology platforms—the Amazon warehouse scanner, the attorney’s hourly billing software —that crack the digital whip. Worse yet, we crack the whip on ourselves.
A lot has been said recently about movements to work less. There are four-day workweek experiments, legislation to prevent overwork, and weekly debates on whether you can actually be a successful entrepreneur while working fewer than 60 hours a week. One common argument against overwork is that productivity and hours worked are not directly related. An oft-cited study from Stanford found that productivity per hour sharply declines after people work 50 hours a week. And those who worked 70 hours didn’t get any more done than those who worked 56.
We should work less because we can pump out the same number of widgets in fewer clicks of the stopwatch, or so the logic goes. But that logic still presumes a work-centric lens, the limitations of which I chronicle in my forthcoming book. Sure, working fewer hours has—in almost every reduced-time experiment—led to higher levels of productivity. But we shouldn’t just work less because it makes us better workers. We should work less because it makes us better people.
Taylor believed our purpose on this earth was to produce economic value. He treated capitalism as a religion and described the average steelworker as “so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox.” Never mind workers’ humanity; he saw their every action, their every second, as an opportunity to maximize corporate profits.
Although it’s easy to scoff at Taylor’s worldview, many of us in America—myself included—embody a hint of Taylorism in the way we work today. We use elevator rides and checkout lines as opportunities to tap out one more email or respond to one more Jira ticket. Silicon Valley worships at the altar of productivity and calls it “purpose.” We praise those who pursue side grinds and passive income strategies—as if the 8 to 10 hours we give to our employers each day aren’t enough. And we tether our sense of self-worth to our output.
But the real benefit of working less isn’t that it gives us space to pick up a side grind or to “recharge” for when we’re back on the clock. The real benefit is that it allows us to pick up our kids from school and have dinner more often as a family. Working less makes us better friends and neighbors. It allows us the space to exercise regularly and to read for pleasure, and to create art that no one has to see.
Unsurprisingly, according to the OECD, the countries with the greatest work-life balance map closely to the countries with the greatest life satisfaction. Put simply, working less allows us to be fuller versions of ourselves.
With a work-centric existence, we don’t just give our best hours to our jobs, but our best energy, too. It’s no wonder that when we get home—or switch from the work laptop to the personal laptop—we often can do little more than turn on Netflix. Nothing against Netflix, but finding meaning outside of work requires active forms of leisure. It requires us to do things. And in the words of Esther Perel, too many of us bring the best of ourselves to work and bring the leftovers home.
The recent advancements in AI give us a chance to do things differently. As one Nobel Prize winning labor economist recently said, “We could increase our well-being generally from work and we could take off more leisure. We could move to a four-day week easily.”
The four-day workweek trials in places like Iceland and the UK, and at companies like Microsoft (in Japan), have proven with data what many of us know intuitively: We can be as, if not more, productive by working fewer hours.
But to me, what stands out from the studies are the participants’ reflections. “This reduction in hours shows increased respect for the individual,” one member of the Icelandic four-day workweek study said. “We are not just machines that just work...we are persons with desires and private lives, families, and hobbies.” Tell that to Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco–based author, journalist, and designer. His book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work comes out in less than a month and is currently available for preorder. If you liked this piece, you can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his free newsletter.
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