Opinion: Does AI mean the four-day work week is almost here?

Opinion: Does AI mean the four-day work week is almost here?

I would like to work four days a week instead of five. You don’t?

I would take Fridays off. The way I imagine it would be a few years from now. A robot in a butler’s uniform served us drinks in the backyard on what used to be just another day at work. I played ball with the kids while ChatGPT did their homework for them.

Who says the world is going to hell and the future is bleak? Artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and work automation hold out hope for less work, more leisure and extended holidays every weekend.

Dotted style portrait illustration of Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.

That’s the opinion, anyway, of Christopher Pissarides, who received the Nobel Prize in economics and believes that, thanks to AI and automation, society “could easily move to a four-day week.”

He said as much in an article published in the LA Times last week.

“They can take away a lot of the boring stuff we do at work… and leave only the interesting stuff for humans,” he added.

Pissarides wrote that automation has a “bad reputation” and that we must “embrace AI and automation without hesitation” as we help workers make the transition to the new economy.

It would be great if he was sure that productivity gains and increased efficiency would be plowed back, spurring new innovation, creating new jobs and industries, and driving economic growth as older, less productive jobs are replaced by “more advanced occupations” and we all get Fridays off with no pay cuts.

But I’m skeptical that this will happen easily.

I realize it’s presumptuous of me to question the optimism of a Nobel Prize winner, especially considering I didn’t do so well in “Introduction to Economics” 45 years ago.

But, with all due respect, count me among those who wonder whether the financial benefits of automation will actually be utilized to improve workers’ well-being — or if they’ll just fuel higher profits for shareholders and heavier bonuses for executives, thereby exacerbating income inequality.

Count me among those who fear employers will work hard to take most of the savings for themselves unless society forces them not to.

Automation of one kind or another is as old as humans, and the fear of losing jobs to machines goes back at least to the textile factories of the Industrial Revolution. Most of us learned in school about the Luddites, a secret organization of disaffected English factory workers from the early 19th century who went about destroying automated looms and other modern machines that they feared would destroy their jobs or make working conditions worse.

Nowadays, automation is moving faster than ever. A Goldman Sachs report released last month said 300 million jobs worldwide could be “impacted” or “disrupted” thanks to generative AI alone. A McKinsey Global Institute report determined that up to half of the jobs people do in the world could theoretically be automated.

Salespeople are already disappearing at my local Rite-Aid because of the self-service machines. Parking attendants are hardly to be found thanks to automatic gates, ticket vending machines and self-checkout kiosks. At airports, boarding passes are distributed by machines. Baggage handlers are being replaced by robots, immigration officers by facial recognition technology.

And we think these workers are taking advantage of the three-day weekends?

With the extraordinary innovations in AI, automation may soon move beyond blue-collar and low-skilled workers, increasingly affecting so-called “knowledge workers” with college educations. Who is at risk? Think software engineers, tax preparers, copy editors and paralegals. For starters.

Many economists share Pissarides’ optimistic view. They note that, historically, when automation has eliminated jobs, new jobs have made up for the losses. Productivity gains lower prices, which increases spending and creates jobs. And innovation itself requires workers: while we no longer employ blacksmiths, we do have auto mechanics, solar panel installers, and airline pilots.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that more than 60% of US jobs in 2018 were not invented in 1940.

In addition, robots can do jobs that are undesirable or highly dangerous or that require superhuman strength and endurance. In many cases, robots are faster, stronger, more accurate and more efficient than people.

So there are definitely benefits to automation. But the challenge is making sure they’re spread out.

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu says that over the past four decades, jobs lost to automation no were replaced by an equal number of new ones. Since the late 1980s, he says, automation has increased income inequality rather than lifting all boats.

The real beneficiaries of automation during this time? Corporations, their owners and, in some cases, workers with very high levels of qualification, especially those with postgraduate degrees.

“The argument that workers will benefit from automation on a massive scale is pretty weak,” Acemoglu told me. “Evidence indicates that the productivity gains from automation over the last four decades have been largely captured by companies and managers alike.”

I’m not suggesting that we should – or could – stop innovation or halt progress.

But to mitigate the enormous disruption, the transition cannot be left entirely to the whim of employers. The benefits of automation shouldn’t simply be shipped straight into the pockets of the Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks of the world.

Pissarides urges the government to provide income and job transition support for workers.

Harry J. Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University, calls for tax breaks and subsidies to create “good jobs.” K-12 education, he says, must be overhauled to prepare 21st century workers with communication skills, critical thinking skills, creativity and common sense that will be valuable and marketable in the new economy.

Many times in history, society has left workers to fend for themselves in times of dramatic economic change. Is the government committed, this time around, to ensuring this doesn’t happen again?

Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to my four-day work week.

But I have no illusions that it will happen on its own, thanks to the generosity of modern factory owners. It will take a fight.


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