Nathan Schneider is a journalist who writes about religion, technology, and resistance. He is the author of two books, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. His articles have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vice, Al Jazeera America, and other outlets. He has consulted on several Social Science Research Council digital projects, and is an editor for two online publications,Killing the Buddha and Waging Nonviolence. He holds an MA in religious studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a BA in the same subject from Brown University.
Who Stole the Four-Hour Workday?
From “The Song of Myself” to “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” U.S. popular culture has been full of longing for a future of short working hours and plentiful leisure — until fairly recently. In the colonial period, the fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards thought of leisure as a vision of the kingdom of God, and Benjamin Franklin estimated that technology would allow us to work on four hours per day. Walt Whitman understood leisure as nearly synonymous with democracy. By the early 1830s, shorter hours became a chief demand of the industrial labor movement, whose workers — often led by visionary women — sought to reap the fruits of technology with shorter hours in the factories. Their struggles resulted in a century of gradual reductions in working hours up until the New Deal enshrined the eight-hour day. Even through the 1960s, science fiction and sociologists alike expected mounting free time to be an inevitable part of our future, but it never came. The coming kingdom of leisure used to be considered a mainly technological problem; it has turned out to be, however, a political one. The decline of the labor movement during the Cold War ended both the dream of shorter hours and the mechanism for achieving it. Now, rather than automating our working hours away, technology has been a means of compelling workers to work longer hours under more precarious conditions. This discussion will place current trends in a historical trajectory, and it will consider ways of updating past strategies and tactics that won shorter working hours to the digital context.