Did ‘The Jetsons’ Lie About the Post-Work World?

How a classic cartoon misunderstood the end of work and why that matters.

George Jetson lives at the top of a very tall pillar. This is not unusual in Orbit City, but it is indicative and it is important.

Here’s another fact about George Jetson: He has a full-time job working two hours a week for Spacely Sprockets. His work as a Digital Index Operator affords him a solid middle-class lifestyle, freeing up enough cash for his younger, unemployed wife to go shopping at the beginning of every episode and make (presumably) monthly payments on his robo-maid. He’s worried about money, but only in the way that all sitcom dads are worried about money, which is to say nominally. George isn’t just the star of The Jetsons, he’s the poster child for post-work work, the becalmed beneficiary of automation. This happy situation is a product of a dual misunderstanding: Sixties animators didn’t quite understand robots and totally misunderstood George Jetson.

It is basically accepted wisdom that we live in the prelude to the age of robots. Automation is already widespread, if not yet assumed. The people who have jobs like George Jetson’s already spend their time pressing buttons, they just press a lot of them 40 hours a week. And there is a simple reason for this: Robots aren’t as productive as William Hanna thought they might be. George Graetz and Guy Michaels of Sweden’s Uppsala University and the London School of Economics have demonstrated that between 1997 and 2007, robots contributed an annual labor productivity growth rate (a measure of trends in units produced) of .36 percent. Even presuming that the numbers will be higher in 2017, that doesn’t seem like much.

Well, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t.

To put things in perspective, it’s more than the steam engine contributed annually to productivity between 1850 and 1910. And the steam engine mattered. It sped the world up, but it wasn’t so productive that it eliminated jobs in any meaningful way. This is not to say that the umpteen think pieces about #THEENDOFWORK currently circulating online and in print are unfounded, but to point out that they somewhat misunderstand where we stand. Even within heavily robotized economies, manufacturing job losses are still not correlated with the number of automatons in the work force.

But The Jetsons takes place in 2062 and times change. That’s the catch, but the catch has a catch too: People change to suit the times.

In the 19th episode of The Jetsons, Mr. Spacely informs George that he’ll have to double up on his shifts, working two hours instead of one. Quite literally, Mr. Spacely asks George to have The Four-Hour Work Week (TM) and George is utterly dismayed. So accustomed to automation is he that the idea of consecutive hours doesn’t compute. He is, at heart, a clock puncher, a laborer who works like he’s in a manufacturing economy even those he’s actually zipping around weightless in an information economy.

The Japanese sociologist Yoneji Masuda, the first man to consider the ramification of an information economy explained the quasi-spiritual result of technological progress thusly: “The materialistic values of satisfying physiological and physical needs are the universal standards of social values… but in the information society, seeking the satisfaction of achieved goals will become the universal standard of values.” If you strip away a bit of jargon, the point — the hierarchy of needs places food above a sense of self, but includes both — stands.

It turns out that the world George occupies is actually more believable than George, who never uses his work or his personal life to supplement the meaning of his life.

George Jetson illustrates the problem with robocentric coverage of robots. Even commentators that don’t underestimate human adaptability — specifically blue-collar adaptability — often forget that our economies and our motivations are deeply entwined. We don’t work 40 hours a week because that’s the amount of work that needs to get done. We work 40 hours a week because that feels right; but other things can feel right too. Two hours a week could feel right, but no one is going to put that in and head home to Netflix.

Lets grant the show’s premise and assume that robots spent the 2030s and 2040s being crazy productive and that there was never some sort of apocalyptic event that the characters on the show refuse to reference. If all this is the case, we have to ask what is at the bottom of the super tall pillar that the Jetson residence sits on. Given the lack of dense construction in Orbit City (and the commuter-friendly Googie architecture), we can safely assume that the poors live on the surface. Are they impoverished and desperate because robots took their jobs? Well, given that George can make a comfortable living in two hours, it makes sense that his income is being bolstered by paychecks Spacely has ceased to cut. Yeah, that looks like a yes.

So, in all probability, we’ve got a show about a guy with no aspirations or goals who is doing nothing to help the people struggling on the surface of a planet he’s abandoned in order to raise his family on an inflated salary. That’s not a cool dude and it’s not a cool show. Hell, make it about the heroes trying to destroy that guy and you’ve got Elysium.

The fundamental problem with George Jetson is that he’s either a moron or an asshole. It’s tempting to see ourselves that way, but most people don’t fit in those silos. That’s something to remember as you peruse your next fear-mongering feature or watch a robot settle into the next desk over.