Unorthodox insight for adapting the workweek

Based on OCDE reports, the GDP Annual Growth Rate a standard of economic growth since the 1940’s has slowed down within countries of the G20. Trending on average between 0-2% per year. Long are the days where double digits growth rates were seen within the Western front. While Africa (3-8%) is catching-up and China (6-6.5%) being the only exception within the G20, companies are now facing a low (even neutral) growth environment. Demographics are partially to blame within most OCDE countries as an ageing population with a low birth rate are significant factors for the downward shift (The Effects of Demographic Change on GDP Growth in OECD Economies). Another reason put forward for a low growth rate is the inability of GDP to asses non-quantifiable value (as GDP is based on income) and that many services are increasingly digitalized offering more value for the same or lower cost.

Talks about changing the indicators is not new. Already in 2009, Harvard Business School professor Jim Heskett came to reflect that GDP as a measurement has limitations as we entered in a low-growth environment. He questioned as many others its relevance to assess economic well-being, which is difficult to quantify. As such, different indicators are promoted as alternatives to the GDP, the IDI (Inclusive Development Index) promoted by the World economic Forum or the more famous GNH (Gross National Happiness) an index that measures the collective well-being of a population. None of them yet standardized as GDP.

Cells on the other hand have nothing in common with economic indicators, at least on first sight. As biological units they too need to adapt to their surrounding environment, not for economical gain but biological survival. Biology, as part of the natural environment helps us understand the world around and has been a source of inspiration for various artists and engineers such as Leonardo DaVinci and in contemporary architecture as the “Bird’s Nest” station in Bejing.

On that spirit, how cells react to changes might help us realize that adjustments are needed if this new slow-growth economical trend continues.

Cells for the layman can be viewed as factories that (among other things) produce proteins that can be structural, units of communication or molecular machines. Once created these molecules feed the trillions of processes that occur within a body. This year another key discovery was awarded to scientists who deciphered how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. More precisely they uncovered transcriptor factors (regulatory proteins) named “Hypoxia Inducible Factor (HIF)” associated with oxygen- dependent responses. Cells, as many things must manage to do their best with what they have. Oxygen is a necessary element of oxidative reactions used to convert nutriments to ATP (the energy molecule). In some situations there is not enough oxygen, while in other cases there is too much. Here the Nobel prize was awarded (The Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine 2019) for the discovery and understanding of core molecular mechanisms of how cells adapt to the oxygen response pathway.So here we see once again that cells possess mechanisms used to adapt towards their environment. This case illustrates that when cell faces a low oxygen environment the molecular machinery adapts to new environmental conditions for its survival.

Back to our economic environment. GDP, analogous to oxygen, is trending towards a slow- down. Changes must therefore be meet, if not only to acknowledge that a change has occurred. People as economic agents are sensing the change and signaling that new economic solutions are needed. The idea of universal income for example has never been so popular not only to fight income polarity but as a potential solution for a low growth environment. However interesting, universal income might not work as policy has inherent limitations. This might require instead a systematic solution, changing the structure of the work week.

A cornerstone of our economic activity, the workweek has not dramatically changed since antiquity. Mixing politics and religion, remnants of its structure can be still seen by the names of months (for example July is derived from Julius Cesar and August is derived from Augustus) and the 7 day structure can be explained in part by the book of Genesis (God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th). Due to its arguably archaic structure and foundational economic unit, we should question why its format is still accepted and propose new structures that stronger reflect to our new economic environment. Again, proposals within this frame are not new. Most famously John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century suggested back in 1930 that a 15 hours work week would be eventually possible. He understood that if economic growth continued as he projected, workers would only need 15 hours of work to meet most of their needs. Mistakenly, he might have neglected human’s irrationality and insatiable desires or simply the resistance as to challenge the status-quo.

Nevertheless not all hope is lost as entrepreneurs such as Tim Ferris (The 4-Hour Workweek) has experimented with low working hours and New Zealand made headlines in 2018 when a trust company (Perpetual Guardian) experimented with a 4-day week, today considered as a success story. However it remains uncertain if such policy can be extrapolated to larger organizations within other industries and if it is sustainable long term. Changes are occurring but slowly as workings hours per year have been declining since the industrial revolution (The times they are not changin’: Days and hours of work in Old and New Worlds) but low growth rates might require general disruption.

All these elements brings us back to our cells. As biological units, their ability to finetune the degree of change is key for their survival. Therefore as the number of changes and the degree of changes needed within a slow-growth countries remain unknown we should remain hyper- agile and consider all options, including changing the workweek. If not we might face some sort of “apoptosis” (cell death) as cells do when they sense they no longer fit their surroundings. The challenge therefore remains how to avoid some sort of “economic death” as the continual permutations of the economic relationships are reshaping how we structure society (Capital et Idéologie – Thomas Piketty).



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  1. AlexR says: