August 10, 2022

Happy Birthday George Jetson: Hope You Weren’t Expecting a Nine Hour Working Week

Happy birthday George Jetson! According to disputed records, George was destined to be born in 2022, and some say – with little evidence – that the date was 31st July. If that is the case then he’s now a full week and bit old, and giving his mother sleepless nights with his disturbed circadian rhythm.

For those of you who too young to remember , before there was Back to the Future, and all of its predictions about what the 2020s were going to be like, there was The Jetsons, the early 60s cartoon of a futuristic family produced by the behemoth Hanna-Barbera company. The Jetsons were the future’s answer to the iconic The Flintstones, that modern Stone Age family/ From the town of Bedrock they’re….

Anyway you get the picture, The Jetsons may have been able to fly, but they didn’t really fly. The Flintstones passed into folklore and their theme song is an ear worm. The Jetsons just passed, and even a reboot in the early 80s was met with “meh”. And that was that.

Why? Maybe it’s cos they didn’t get the future right. Somehow The Flintstones, with all their angst about relationships and work and seeking to improve themselves, did indeed feel modern. And there was something funny about seeing dinosaurs as building cranes, and pterodactyls as planes. Oh and it was funny. The Jetsons wasn’t funny and it didn’t feel like it got the tapped into reality.

Not least of all the working hours. According to The Jetsons the future of work in around 2062 when George will be forty looks pretty darn easy. George works for three hours a day, three days per week as a “digital index operator” at Spacely Space Sprockets. Digital index operator: a job description that works on so many levels. My mind is saying save the commutes and roll all three days into one.

And then times that by five. Because that’s the life of most city professionals. The future hasn’t delivered the easy week many were expecting.

But hold on a minute, the statistics show that the average person in the West works less hours per year than at the middle of the 20th century. US figures bear this out. Sure there’s been a blip upwards in recent decades, but it’s 200 hours less on average.

Here’s the thing though. The average has dropped for manual labourers and unskilled workers, and gone up for professionals. Not everyone is working shorter hours. What’s going on? There are clearly a number of factors at play, including the ability of new technologies to overreach into our lives and ensure that we are always “on” when it comes to work. The boss can always contact us.

Once again that’s part of the curse of a professional job. My brother who works on a mine in a FIFO role recently observed that unlike my work, his work never encroaches on his away time. He flies in to a mine site for two weeks and then flies out of a mine site for two weeks. And for the two weeks he’s at work that’s it. And for the two weeks he’s at home that’s it.

But there are some sociological things going on to. In this future we have arrived at there’s a gaping hole in our meaning and identity buckets that other things, things such as religious affiliation, used to fill. I’ve quote him before, but writer for The Atlantic Derek Thompson, who has a focuses on work-related matters, made this observation that economists…

…failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community

Identity. Transcendence. Community. No wonder many college educated, secular people – even whilst they complain that they are overworked – lean into work. The rewards are not simply financial. There is emotional, spiritual and meaning-making gold to be found in them thar hills! I mean, where else is it going to come from in such a visceral and immediately visible manner?

And of course, companies are not unaware of this. That’s why the primary battle grounds in so many areas of the culture wars can be found in the CBD offices in our major cites. Given the opportunity to practice the overreach into our lives which they have so desperately craved, (and which they have already been rewarded with in terms of the time and energy we give them), the big corporations didn’t blink. These companies are selling a vision of humanity to us, even while they dehumanise us at the same time.

And do they dehumanise us? Of course they do. I had lunch last week with a top-end-of-town young executive who, because the current inflationary challenges, has to bring a bunch of staff into his office and tell them their services are no longer required.

And as a Christian, he’s finding that a challenge. How does one do that sort of thankless task well, when the only criteria from the company that matters is whether financial KPIs are being met? The company even scripts the statements and one does not dare to detour from that script.

Who do we blame when there’s no one single person really to blame? Is it the CEO? Is it the board? Is it the pure data itself? Or perhaps the shareholders – actual human beings with a vested interest in their portfolios? Everyone is to blame, which means no one is. But you pack your cardboard box, hand in your security pass and get escorted out the door nonetheless.

All that promise of identity, transcendence and community gone in one fell swoop.

Enough to make you operate your index digit in a certain direction.

Happy birthday George Jensen. The next forty years will fly.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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