In a piece forwarded to me by a former student [ht: jm], the Economist reminds us of John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 prediction [pdf] that, in one hundred years, a new age of abundance and leisure would mean we’d have to do very little work—perhaps three hours a day, just “to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”
Well, sixteen years shy of Keynes’s century, we’re still working many more hours than we need to. And not because we don’t know what to do with our leisure time. It’s because current economic arrangements are such that, to earn enough income for ourselves and our families, we still have to work (or, according to the information in the chart above from the American Time Use Survey, engage in work-related activities) more than eight hours a day—which leaves, on an average work day (and after sleeping, eating and drinking, taking care of our households, and so on) just 2.5 hours of leisure.
The problem of time lost doing work is particularly acute in the United States, especially when compared to other rich countries (such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). Starting in 1970, Americans worked on average fewer hours per year relative to other countries—and, while the total number of hours worked has decreased since then in all four countries, it’s declined the least in the United States (essentially having leveled off since 1982).
And it’s not just a matter of “yuppie kvetching” as the Economist (and, earlier, Elizabeth Kolbert) argues—as if we were in a world of “time-poor haves” and “time-rich have-nots” (although the readers of the Economist might like to imagine themselves in those terms). As readers can see in the two charts above, the average annual hours worked by production and nonsupervisory employees almost perfectly tracks the annual hours worked by all employed persons in the United States (the difference in 2011 amounted to merely 24 hours per year).
The fact is, those near the top, who do in fact spend a great deal of their time at work, serve the tiny minority above them by making sure everyone else—the vast majority of the population—also spends a large portion of their time working and, in the process, creating much more value than they receive in their wages and salaries. Those hours—the many hours people spend working not for themselves but for the small group who own and control the enterprises where they work—that’s the real lost time we should be worried about.
And that’s what keeps the entire system—of a great deal of work and very little leisure—firmly in place, especially in the United States.
If only Keynes had been right back in 1930:
Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth—unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them.
The only way to eliminate that obligation is for the people who work to have a say in how many hours they work and in what is done with the value they create while they work.
Otherwise, as long as things stay the way they are, the rest of us will continue our search for lost time.