Tuesday August 09, 2022

Work hours

June 28, 2022

Back in 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances, slowed population growth, increasing capital (or ‘material things’) and changing economic priorities would make three-hour shifts or a 15-hour workweek possible and desirable within 100 years.

Then, he wrote, “The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” Keynes cautioned, however, that the “age of leisure and abundance” could be met with dread: “For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”

Still, he remained optimistic: “I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.” We're eight years from Keynes’s 100-year prediction. Technology has advanced, more than he could have imagined. Population growth has slowed, although not stabilized. Capital has increased, albeit much wealth has been hoarded and monopolized by a few. And environmental and social crises have led many to question economic priorities. So, why are we still working hours similar to 70 years ago? Part of the answer lies in the postwar adoption of ‘consumerism’ as an economic model. It may also relate to the concern Keynes raised: the ‘dread’ that people won't know how to occupy their leisure time. But with so many people feeling overwhelmed by an out-of-whack work-life balance, the latter isn't an insurmountable problem. Women, especially, are feeling the crunch. Unlike in the 1950s, most have joined the workforce, but as in those days, they still do most of the housekeeping and child care.

Keynes distinguished between ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ needs. The latter, he argued, “satisfy the desire for superiority”, and “may indeed be insatiable”. But Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz notes that society moulds our choices. We “learn how to consume by consuming”, he writes, and how to “enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure”.

Because we’ve failed to reduce work hours gradually, as Keynes envisioned, we’re unlikely to achieve 15-hour workweeks by 2030. But environmental and social conditions have sparked a move toward a four-day workweek.

Excerpted: ‘In Praise of the 15-Hour Work Week’. Courtesy: