Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic cartoon sitcom the Jetsons, meaning America is only halfway to a delightfully automated life.
In many respects, we look on track. In 1962, the show’s creators imagined a robot maid named Rosie. Now, we have the Roomba. And while George Jetson zipped around in a flying saucer, the first flying car debuted this spring at the New York International Auto Show.
But not everything in the imagined 2060s might seem familiar. Jetson often complained that all the “three-hour workdays are killing me.” But today we’re working more hours than ever, and Jetson’s workday seems like the strangest thing about the show.
In the 1960s, economists assumed that the trend of shrinking workdays would continue as it had since the late 1800s. Seminal British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a three-hour work day was 100 years off as early as 1930.
Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, says that mindframe had been influenced by decades of progress.
“When Keynes thought that people might be working three hours a day, he had in mind a straight line of trends that rich societies had seen for the previous 70 or 80 years,” says Burtless.
A lot of things have fundamentally changed since that era. We’re still getting more productive, but just not as fast as before. Productivity gains slowed down in the 1970s through the middle of the 1990s. And while the dot-com bubble helped boost them again, gains never fully recovered — and started to slow again 2004.
But the benefits from our productivity also go elsewhere now — like the income gap. According to Burtless, “If the people at the top are getting more, there’s a smaller percentage left over for workers in the middle and at the bottom.”
Robert Gordon, an economics professor at Northwestern University, says that economic growth and innovation will still be a part of our future, but we shouldn’t expect as much. “Things have just slowed down,” says Gordon. “I’m predicting that the standard of living will double in 50 or 60 years, but it used to be that the standard of living would double in 30 years.”
So even if we can imagine Rosie the Robot helping out around the house in the future, the prospects for a three-hour workday don’t seem as rosy.
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