The animated series appeared sixty years ago The Jetsons ended its first and only season before being canceled. Only 24 episodes were broadcast between September 1962 and March 1963. Despite this, the cartoon has gained tremendous influence in popular culture, spawning numerous reruns, a mid-1980s reboot (51 episodes over two seasons), and a full-length feature. movie in 1990.
The Jetsons was created by Los Angeles animation studio Hanna-Barbara as a futuristic version of the studio’s hit series The Flintstones, the first cartoon series to secure a primetime slot.
But while The Flintstones was set thousands of years ago in a distant, mythical Stone Age, The Jetsons was set in a very near future – in 2062.
Like The Flintstones, the show was mainly aimed at children and played with ideas about the future for laughs. It is not a serious work of futurology. Yet it is still an interesting cultural artifact, helping us appreciate our present and our expectations of the future.
The first episode aired a few weeks after US President John F. Kennedy made his famousMoon speech”, promising “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.
Although that promise was motivated by the fear that the Soviet Union would win the victory Space race, the depicted future is mostly optimistic. Technology holds the promise of a better world.
Imaginary whimsical technology includes flying cars, robotic girls, video calls, smartwatches, food printing, and space tourism. Some of this seems farsighted. But there are major blind spots. For example, those flying cars still need a driver.
There are three things the creators obviously got wrong: women’s place in the workforce, how much we’ll be working, and where we’ll be working.
Like the Flintstones, The Jetsons revolve around a nuclear family in the industrialized society of the mid-20th century. There’s George (about 40 years old), his wife Jane (about 33), their teenage daughter Judy (15), youngest son Elroy, a dog named Astro and a robot maid.
We can calculate that Jane was still in her teens when she became a mother. She is the head of a recycling company but it doesn’t seem like much work. For the most part, she’s a typical TV housewife.
This is now the norm in only a small number of societies. It seems unlikely that the trend in female labor force participation will reverse over the next 40 years.
If the show had been made ten years later, the influence of the women’s liberation movement and books such as Germain Greer’s The Female Eunuch (published in 1970) would have changed this view of 2062.
For example, in the 1990 film, Jane is an environmentalist. In a 2017 relaunched comic she is a scientist working on the International Space Station.
One explanation why Jane does not work is that George, the breadwinner, hardly has to work either.
He only works two days a week, one hour a day, as a “digital index operator”. This involves him pushing 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 the profits made by workers in the first half of the 20th century – with a 40-hour, five-day work week becoming the norm in the 1950s – could be achieved in the second half of the century would be continued. Optimists hoped that productivity gains from automation wouldleisure society” by the year 2000.
This has not proved to be the case, with only marginal reductions in working hours for most since then.
As American economist and sociologist Juliet Schor pointed out in her 1991 book The overworked American : the unexpected decline of leisure, the idea that technology alone can lead to less work, does not take into account the economic system in which people work. That is, capitalism is aimed at increasing consumption (and therefore profit). The emphasis was therefore on making more money as the key to happiness, and therefore working even harder, not less.
We can even see this in the current four-day work week, which promises the prospect 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.
Trials of this 100:80:100 model (100% of wages, 80% of hours, 100% of productivity) have proven to be a great success, but as employment researcher Anthony Veal pointed out, big questions remain about whether these results are applicable throughout the economy.
Read more: 4-day-workweek trials are labeled a ‘resounding success’. But 4 big questions need answers
At this stage, the likelihood of a significant reduction in working time for most people over the next 40 years seems questionable.
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 be a reflection of the fact that the internet and personal computing revolution had yet to happen. It wasn’t until the 1970s that futurologists began to get excited about the prospects of remote work.
More importantly, that’s just how things were conceived – work was something done under the watchful eye of management. It also created opportunities to play with familiar motifs involving George’s boss, the short-tempered Mr. Spacely, a character similar to Fred Flintstone’s boss, Mr. Slate, and Mr. Burns in The Simpsons.
Read more: A brief history of the office
Management resistance to remote working was strong until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cultural shift.
The future of where and how much we work will undoubtedly be shaped by technology. But our perceptions and expectations of what can be achieved are just as important.