The more automation advances, the more predictions about future work are divided between those who see a "half-empty" future characterized by mass unemployment and those who see a "half-full" future with a happier society and more free time.
Alongside the economic factor, a job offers other (often psychological) benefits such as self-esteem and a sense of social inclusion. Today researchers at the University of Cambridge and Salford have defined a recommended "dosage" of work for optimal well-being.
The team examined changes in working hours related to mental health and personal satisfaction in over 70.000 British citizens monitored from 2009 to 2018.
The study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine shows that when someone goes from unemployment to a paid job of 8 hours or less per week, their risk of mental problems is reduced by at least 30%: instead, there is no evidence that longer hours provide greater mental well-being.
The current working standard (from 37 to 40 hours per week) has no particular differences in terms of mental well-being compared to a part-time job: in general, the benefits (in the absence of any wear and tear) of paid work start from just one day a week . In short, this is the optimal dose.
Less is more, less is better.
"We have user manuals for practically everything from Vitamin C consumption to sleeping hours. For the first time this model has been applied to the concept of work," says the co-author of the study, the Dr Brendan Burchell. He is the Cambridge University sociologist who leads the project.
"We know that unemployment is often harmful to people's health. It negatively affects identity, status, sense of self. Now we have a clearer idea of how much paid work is enough to get the social benefits of work: and you don't need a lot of it. . "
The importance in the future
Supporting those who will be unemployed in a future with limited employment resources due to automation is a fundamental theme, at the basis of the debate on Universal Income. Whatever happens, working hours will have to be dramatically reduced to be distributed.
"Big data, artificial intelligence and robotics will replace many of the jobs currently being done by humans in the coming decades," explains Dr. Daiga Kamerāde, another co-author.
If there is not enough work for those who want to work full time we will need to rethink the current model. Provided that the company does not collapse first, of course.
"Redistribute working hours to allow everyone to benefit from work, even if for less time per week. Our work is an important step in defining the minimum amount of work that will be desirable to do."
The research has identified some not negligible aspects.
Better if it's paid - First of all, the notable psychological difference between the category of paid work and that of unpaid work (it may seem obvious, and it probably is.
Women need more work - The degree of satisfaction and self-esteem in men increases by 30% with 8 hours of paid work per week. Women need a quota of at least 20 hours to reach the same levels: greater resistance to work, greater need for recognition or both?
Work that changes, society that changes
The team explored different configurations of "business models" that could shape our future. "5 day weekends" were reviewed with only two days of work per week, normal working weeks but with 2 hours per day of work. On the other hand, one of the models analyzed provides for two months of vacation every month of work.
Dr Burchell has no doubts about it, drawing a prediction from his study: "If the British growth model aims to increase productivity not by increasing wages but by reducing hours, in just 10 years we will reach a 4-day working week".
Whatever the next model, the reduction and redistribution of working hours could also bring enormous "indirect benefits to society". The new, more life-oriented work-life balance would provide other creative insights and personal well-being. It would improve productivity and even if less, those hours would be denser. CO2 emissions would also be reduced for different transport flows. Above all, however, the team stresses the need to reduce future work for everyone. It would be an absolute measure to avoid socio-economic inequalities.
"The traditional model of at least 40 hours of work per week has never considered a simple question: what is the healthy amount of work we can do? What is the amount beyond which it stops doing good and starts hurting people ? Working in small doses provides the same level of satisfaction, or greater, with zero risks for our physical and mental health, "adds the sociologist. Senhu Wang of the University of Cambridge, another of the authors.
"In any case, the quality of future work will remain crucial. Degrading, precarious or irregular jobs with debased or despised workers only bring discomfort and will do so even more tomorrow."