Incidentally, I’m writing this piece on International Workers’ Day, a day to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago in 1886, where the labour demonstration was actually in favour of the eight-hour workday strike by the workforce.

In contrast, the workweek is currently the subject of a multifaceted tug-of-war. Worldwide. This April, the Chinese supermarket chain Fat Dong Lai announced up to 10 days of “sad leave” annually for its workers. The idea of “sad leave” undoubtedly recognises the necessity for emotional health in humans and the fact that everyone goes through sad times occasionally.

In a different April event, co-founder of Wakefit, a Bengaluru-based startup, Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, reignited the 70-hour workweek debate when he suggested that for maximum productivity, workers should sleep for at least 70 hours a week.

While the 70-hour workweek is a topic of ongoing debate, most people may have missed NR Narayana Murthy’s statement in 2020, during the pandemic: “We should take a pledge that we will work ten hours a day, six days a week – as against 40 hours a week.” That’s sixty hours a week! In 2023, three years later, he will have barely raised the productivity threshold for young Indians.

By the way, an ILO survey indicates that Indians work 47.7 hours a week on average. Interestingly, a few other billionaires in the world have recently voiced opinions along these lines. The controversial “996,” or 12-hour-per-day (9am to 9pm), six-day-per-week work culture in China, which suggests a 72-hour workweek, was backed by Chinese tycoon Jack Ma.

Amidst a tumultuous start to his leadership at the company, Elon Musk also issued a warning to Twitter employees in November 2022, telling them to brace for 80-hour workweeks. In 2021, the Wall Street investment banking culture even sparked a public discussion on the 100-hour workweek. And in what has come to be known as the “Saturday rule,” Goldman Sachs then mandated that its bankers take Saturdays off.

Keynes’ views

Why should the average person have to work so hard in this age of technical advancement? Technology is supposed to lessen human labour, right? Remarkably, in his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” legendary English economist John Maynard Keynes made a number of intriguing and audacious forecasts concerning social life and economic situations one hundred years ahead.

In fact, he foresaw an era of extraordinary leisure due to the greater level of living, during which people would work “three hour shifts or a fifteen hour week,” which is “quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

He also expected a large rise in earnings over the next century. What will the world look like a century after the forecast, as 2030 draws closer?

As a matter of fact, Henry Ford modified the regular six-day workweek to a five-day one in 1926, shortly before Keynes’ prediction.

However, it took more than 50 years thereafter, when, in 1979, a 4-day workweek was envisaged. And it took almost another 50 years for this idea to gain traction on a worldwide scale. However, it hasn’t yet shown up as a general practice in the real world. Did Keynes overestimate or misunderstand the planet’s technological progress entirely?

AI advancements

Indeed, it appeared as though Keynes was daring the next generation to put his forecasts to the test. Given the recent advancements in AI technology, is it possible to conclude that AI will finally cause the seismic shift in workplace culture that Keynes foresaw? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Unexpectedly, in August 2019, Jack Ma spoke differently on stage with Elon Musk at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, just a few months after voicing in favour of China’s infamous “996” work culture.

With the aid of technological advancements and educational system reform, people may work as little as three days a week, four hours a day, in the next ten to twenty years, according to the Alibaba co-founder. Ma gave the example of electricity, saying, “The power of electricity is that we make people more time so that you can go to karaoke or dancing party in the evening. I think because of artificial intelligence, people will have more time enjoying being human beings.”

What’s really interesting is that it agrees with Keynes’ predictions! In this turmoil, society really needs to strike a balance somewhere. If not, 10 sad days off would not seem adequate.

Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata