Why aren’t we working less?

by Emrys Westacott

Back in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the continuous increase in productivity characteristic of industrial capitalism would lead within a century to much more leisure for everyone, with the typical working week being reduced to about fifteen hours. UnknownThis has obviously not come about. To be sure, in virtually all relatively prosperous countries the average number of hours worked annually has fallen over the last few decades. Between 1950 and 2010, in the US, for instance, this number dropped from 1,908 to 1,695, in Canada from 2,079 to 1,711, and in Denmark from 2,144 to 1,523. Even in Japan, famed for its workaholism, the average number of hours worked per year went from a high of 2,224 in 1961 to 1,706 in 2011.[1] But even the lackadaisical Danes are still working twice as hard as Keynes predicted.

Given the increases in productivity and prosperity in the industrialized world, one could have reasonably hoped for more. People in the UK are now four times better off than they were in 1930, but they work only twenty percent less, and that is fairly typical of other advanced economies. The rich, who used to relish their idleness, now boast about how hard they work, while for many of the poor unemployment is a persistent curse.

Moreover, according to economist Staffan Linder, economic growth is typically accompanied by a sense that we have less time available for the things we wish to do. This feeling is not mistaken, but the lack of time is in large part due to the fact that members of affluent societies will opt for more money over more leisure if given the choice. They then start to carry the mentality and values of workplace productivity into every part of their lives, resulting in what Linder calls the “harried leisure class.”[2]

So why was Keynes wrong? According to Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much Is Enough? his mistake was to underestimate the difficulty of reining in the forces unleashed by capitalism, particularly people's desire for ever increasing wealth and the things it can buy. Our natural concern for improved relative status, hardwired into us by evolution, is inflamed by the capitalist system, complete with incessant advertising and free market ideology, so that we always want more than we have and more than we really need.[3]

This explanation of why we still work much harder than we need to has some plausibility. But I would suggest that the problem is not solely, or even mainly, that most people are driven by an insatiable desire for more. Rather, as Juliet Schor argues in The Overworked American, the main problem is that individuals are at the mercy of the system.[4] Many would prefer to work less than they do, but for various reasons they don't feel that they have much choice.

One obvious obstacle to working less is that one's employer may not offer this option. After all, it is usually in the employer's interest to have a smaller number of employees working long hours rather than spreading the work over a larger workforce. And even if working fewer hours is technically an option, many employees will be reluctant to work less for fear that doing so will send the signal that they are insufficiently motivated or committed to the work.

Another obvious problem is the fact that many jobs pay poorly, so people work overtime or take on more than one job. No doubt some people who take on all this extra work are driven by avarice; but far more are motivated simply by the need to make enough to pay the bills. Here it is not the workers who insatiably crave more money, but the bosses (which includes the top executives and the big shareholders). They are the ones who, although often fabulously wealthy themselves, insist on paying their lower grade employees subsistence wages.

The system also includes the way that market forces determine the cost of living. Ideally this is supposed to benefit the consumer as suppliers compete for custom by lowering their prices. But although things work this way with respect to items like computers or cameras, in some crucial spheres the market drives prices up. The most obvious of these is housing.

Normally everyone cheers when prices of a commodity drop, for who doesn't want to see cheaper plane tickets or lower gas prices? But economists treat house prices differently. A fall in house prices is a “slump,” and it is typically reported as bad news. But why?

One reason is that if you own a house, an increase in its value means an increase in your net worth. People are pleased by this, even if the corresponding rise in other house prices means that they are not necessarily any better off. True, they can sell their house for more, but they then have to spend more to buy something similar.

A second reason for cheering a rise in house prices is that one can take out a loan using one's house as collateral, so the higher its value, the more one can borrow. Yet most people don't need to borrow sums so large that a hefty increase in the value of their house is necessary to secure the loan.

A third reason is that rising house prices means high demand for houses, which means work for those who provide the goods and services involved in building and equipping new houses, improving old ones, and helping people move.

This last reason for viewing an increase in house prices positively makes some sense, although even here rising prices are not so much good in themselves as a sign of something else that is good–viz. the prospect of increased economic activity. But on the other side of the ledger, high property values have some significant drawbacks. Most obviously, they make it impossible for many people to buy a house. And in population centers like London or San Francisco, where property values are especially high, rents will also be exorbitant. So those on modest incomes must either devote a good chunk of what they earn to paying the rent, or settle for a long and often unpleasant commute.

Market forces are also responsible for escalating costs in health care and higher education. The problem for people without much money is that these things, like housing, cannot reasonably be considered optional luxuries. Diseases and injuries can threaten one's life; disabilities and pain can seriously reduce one's quality of life. That is why people are willing to bankrupt themselves in order to get treatment for themselves or their family members.

The need for a college education is obviously not quite of the same order: failing to get into the college of your choice may be disappointing, but it is rarely fatal. All the same, for most people hoping to pursue any sort professional career today, a college degree is indispensable. And even though in some countries (e.g. France, Germany, Sweden, Brazil) it is still possible to get a decent education and a respectable qualification quite cheaply, there are far more where this is not true.

The minimum wage, working hours and conditions, public transport, and the cost of essentials like housing, health care, and education, are all aspects of the system we live in that government could do something about to make working less a viable option for those who would prefer it. But we are also pressured to make more money by features of our economic and cultural environment that government policies cannot easily influence.

The Skidelskys emphasize people's uncontrolled desire for wealth, status, and stuff. A lot of this kind of consumption is “relational” in the sense that it is fueled by one's concern for how one stands in relation to others rather than by an authentic need for the thing in question. As such, it is often criticized by anti-materialists. But this criticism is too simple. As Judith Lichtenberg points out, our needs form a spectrum from absolute necessities to sheer luxuries. And while some relational desires are morally problematic–for instance, the desire for superiority over our others–some can be understood more sympathetically. Our desire to be on a more or less equal footing with our peers is tied to our deep-seated need for self-respect. And some relational consumption is forced on us by the surrounding infrastructure. Think of cars, telephones, cell phones, computers, or internet access. At first they are luxuries; but once a critical mass of people acquire them, they become requirements of a normal integrated lifestyle. As Lichtenberg wittily puts it, “invention is the mother of necessity.”[5]

So, if many people in the modern world are spending more time at work than they would like to, this is not primarily because their desire for more money, stuff, and status is out of control. To a great extent they are pressed into this behavior by the system they find themselves participating in. The Skidelkys and others are surely right, though, in questioning the assumption that unlimited economic growth is a good thing, and in criticizing the blind drive for growth that motivates the policies favored by mainstream economists and politicians. Yes, economic growth has clearly improved the lives of millions and brought into being many wonderful things from airplanes to iphones. But our technical cleverness has outpaced our moral wisdom. And this is the case not just in areas like weaponry or medicine. Many societies, most obviously the US, are awash with wealth and talent yet plagued by unemployment, poverty, crime, and environmental problems. The top universities are engines of brilliant research, yet the majority of students in the lower socio-economic tiers leave high school woefully uneducated. Medical science provides a stream of astonishing breakthroughs, but millions continue to suffer from preventable diseases.

Why these paradoxes? One obvious reason is that large complex societies are very difficult things to organize and control. Policies made with the best intentions will often have unforeseen and undesirable consequences, as all economists recognize. But ideology and interests also play a huge role, as is well illustrated by the political opposition in the US to reforming an absurdly inefficient health care system or to introducing a carbon tax (a measure supported by an overwhelming majority of economists).

The philosophy that identifies the good life with one in which people work less and enjoy more leisure does not necessarily entail a particular political line or specific economic policy; but its general outlook naturally tilts toward a position that is critical of consumerism and rejects the values of Wall Street.

Consumerism misguidedly seeks happiness and meaning in the acquisition of things; corporate capitalism is driven by the desire for ever more wealth and measures everything by its contribution to this end. Simple living fundamentalists will denounce these capitalistic values wholesale, perhaps following in the footsteps of Diogenes or Thoreau in opting for a lifestyle removed from the mainstream. ImagesThose of a more moderate persuasion will acknowledge the many benefits brought by economic growth, but will see these as insufficiently realized so long as they are distributed so inequitably and require so many to keep slogging away on the working-getting-spending treadmill. They will thus naturally favor government policies that, by making the basic elements of the good life easy to obtain, free everyone to live more simply if they choose.[6]



[1] Figures taken from Federal Reserve Economic Data [http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/] See also Anders Hayden's account of the progress made by the Work-Time Reduction movement in Sharing the Work, Saving the Planet (London: Zed Books), 2000.

[2] Staffan Linder, The Harried Leisure Class (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).

[3] Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough? Money and the good life (New York: Other Press, 2012)

[4] Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books).

[5] Judith Lichtenberg, “Consuming Because Others Consume,” Social Theory and Practice, Fall 1996; 22, 3.

[6] This essay is adapted from a portion of Chapter 6 of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More–More or Less (Princeton University Press, 2016).

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