September 24, 2023

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Sixty years ago, the animated series The Jetsons finished its first and only season before being canceled.

Only 24 episodes were broadcast between September 1962 and March 1963. Despite this, the cartoon has achieved enormous influence in popular culture, with countless reruns, a reboot in the mid-1980s (51 episodes over two seasons), and a feature-length film in the 1990s.

The Jetsons was created by Hanna-Barbera Animation Studios in Los Angeles as a futuristic version of the studio’s hit series The Flintstones, the first cartoon series to gain a prime-time slot.

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But whereas The Flintstones is set thousands of years ago in a distant, mythical Stone Age, The Jetsons is set in the very near future – 2062.

Like The Flintstones, the show was aimed mostly at children and played with ideas about the future for laughs. This is not a serious work of futurology. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting cultural artifact, one that helps us appreciate our present and our expectations of the future.

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The first episode aired just weeks after US President John F. Kennedy’s famous “Moon Speech”, promising to “go to the Moon and do other things this decade, not because they’re easy, but because that they are difficult.”

The Jetsons title sequence.

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While that promise was inspired by fear of the Soviet Union winning the Space Race, the future depicted is mostly optimistic. Technology holds the promise of a better world.

The whimsical technology envisioned includes flying cars, robot maids, video calls, smartwatches, food printing and space tourism. Some of it seems visionary. But there are big blind spots. For example, flying cars still need a driver.

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There are three things its creators clearly got wrong: the place of women in the workforce, how much work we will do, and where we work.

gender stereotypes

Like The Flintstones, The Jetsons revolves around a nuclear family in a mid-20th century industrial society. George (aged about 40), his wife Jane (about 33), their teenage daughter Judy (15), young son Elroy, a dog named Astro, and a robot housekeeper.

We can calculate that Jane was in her teens when she became a mother. She heads a recycling company but it doesn’t seem like much work is involved. She is the typical TV housewife for the most part.

It is now the norm in only a few societies. It seems unlikely that the trend in women’s workforce participation will reverse in the next 40 years.

women in the workforce

Had the show been made a decade later, it is possible that the women’s liberation movement and books such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (published in 1970) would have changed this view of 2062.

In the 1990 film, for example, Jane is an environmental activist. In the 2017 relaunched comic, she is a scientist working on the International Space Station.

hours of work

One explanation for Jane not working is that George, the breadwinner, hardly has to work.

He goes to work as a “digital index operator” just two days a week, for an hour a day. This involves him pressing buttons to maintain an atomic supercomputer called RUDI (short for “Referential Universal Digital Indexer”).

George’s working hours reflect the optimism of the 1960s that reflected the gains made by workers in the first half of the 20th century – with the 40-hour, five-day work week becoming the norm by the 1950s – in the second half of the century will continue. Optimists expected that productivity gains from automation would mean a “leisure society” by the year 2000.

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George Jetson at work. hanna-barbera

This has not proven to be the case, with only minor reductions in working hours for most since then.

As noted by American economist and sociologist Juliet Schor in her 1991 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, the idea technology alone may have little to do with the economic system in which the work is done. That is, capitalism is geared toward increasing consumption (and thus profits). Hence the emphasis on making more money as the key to happiness, and therefore working harder, not less.

We can even see this in the current four-day week movement, which promises the possibility of reducing the 38-hour, five-day work week to 32 hours and four days, but only as long as the same productivity is maintained. Is.

Testing this 100:80:100 model (100% of pay, 80% of hours, 100% of productivity) has been heralded as a great success, but as work researcher Anthony Weil has noted, there are big questions about whether Do these results apply across the economy?

At this stage, the prospect of a significant reduction in working hours for most people over the next 40 years looks dubious.

remote work

Even though George only has to work two hours a week, he still has to go to an office (at Spacely Space Sprockets) to push his buttons.

This may reflect the fact that the Internet and personal computing revolution had not yet occurred. It wasn’t until the 1970s that futurologists started getting excited about the possibilities of remote working.

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More importantly, this is how things were conceived – something that got the job done under the watchful eye of management. It also created opportunities to play with familiar motifs associated with George’s boss, the short-tempered Mr. Spacely, Fred Flintstone’s boss, Mr. Slate, and Mr. Burns in The Simpsons.

Management resistance to remote work was strong until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cultural shift.

The future of where and how much we work will certainly be shaped by technology. But our perceptions and expectations about what can be achieved are just as important.

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