Does AI mean the 4-day workweek is almost here?

Nicholas Goldberg
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

I'd like to work four days a week instead of five. Wouldn't you?

I'd take Fridays off. The way I imagine it, it'd be just a few years from now. A robot in a butler's uniform would serve us drinks in the backyard on what used to be just another workday. I'd toss a ball around 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 job automation hold out the hope of less work, more leisure and long weekends every weekend.

Concerns about automation have spurred labor protests by workers at the Port of Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

That's the view, anyway, of Christopher Pissarides, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics and believes that thanks to AI and automation, society "could move to a four-day week easily."

He said it in an article that appeared in the L.A. Times last week.

"They could take away a lot of boring things that we do at work … and then leave only the interesting stuff to human beings," he added.

Pissarides has written that automation gets a "bad rap" and that we should "embrace AI and automation without hesitation" while helping workers make the transition to the new economy.

It'd be great if he's right that productivity gains and increases in efficiency will be reinvested, spurring new innovations, creating new jobs and industries, and driving economic growth as older, less productive jobs are replaced with "more advanced occupations" and we all get Fridays off with no cut in pay.

But I'm skeptical that it'll happen easily.

I realize it's presumptuous of me to question the optimism of a Nobel Prize winner, especially given that I didn't do so good in "Intro to Economics" 45 years ago.

But, with all due respect, count me among those who wonder whether the financial benefits of automation will really be put to use improving workers' well-being — or whether they'll just feed higher profits for shareholders and heftier bonuses for executives, thereby exacerbating income inequality.

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

Automation, of one sort or another, is as old as humans are, and fear of losing jobs to machines goes back at least to the textile mills of the Industrial Revolution. Many of us learned in school about the Luddites, a secret organization of disaffected early 19th century English mill workers who went around destroying automated looms and other newfangled machinery they feared would eliminate their jobs or worsen labor conditions.

These days 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 report by the McKinsey Global Institute determined that up to half the jobs people do in the world could theoretically be automated.

Already, salespeople are disappearing at my local Rite-Aid because of self-service checkout machines. Parking garage attendants can hardly be found thanks to automatic gates, ticket-dispensing machines and self-paying kiosks. At airports, boarding passes are dispensed by machines. Baggage handlers are being displaced by robots, immigration officers by facial recognition technology.

And do we think those workers are all off enjoying three-day weekends?

With the extraordinary innovations in AI, automation may soon move beyond blue-collar and less-skilled workers, increasingly affecting so-called "knowledge workers" with college educations. Who's 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 ones offset the losses. Productivity gains drive down prices, which drives up spending and creates jobs. And innovation itself requires workers: Although we no longer employ blacksmiths, we've got auto mechanics, solar panel installers and airline pilots.

One Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that more than 60% of jobs in the U.S. in 2018 hadn't been invented in 1940.

Furthermore, robots can do jobs that are undesirable or highly dangerous or require superhuman strength and stamina. 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 to ensure they're spread around.

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu says that over the last four decades, jobs lost to automation have not been replaced by an equal number of new ones. Since the late 1980s, he says, automation has increased income inequality rather than raising all boats.

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

"The case that workers will benefit from mass-scale automation is pretty weak," Acemoglu told me. "The evidence indicates that the productivity gains from automation of the last four decades have been largely captured by companies and managers."

Now I'm not suggesting we should — or could — stop innovation or halt progress.

But to mitigate the enormous disruption, the transition cannot be left entirely to the caprice of employers. Automation's benefits must not simply be dispatched directly into the pockets of the Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks of the world.

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

Harry J. Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, calls for tax incentives and subsidies for "good job" creation. K-12 education, he says, should be retooled to prepare 21st century workers with the communication skills, critical thinking abilities, creativity and good judgment that will be valuable and marketable in the new economy.

Too often in history, society has left workers to fend for themselves in times of dramatic economic change. Is government committed, this time, to ensuring it doesn't happen again?

Like everyone else, I'm eager for my four-day workweek.

But I don't kid myself that it'll happen on its own thanks to the generosity of the modern-day mill owners. It'll take a fight.

— Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.