The Past And Future Of The Workweek

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 15 2012 9:53 AM

The Past And Future Of The Workweek

Chris Bertram reports back from an event dedicated to "exploring the idea of working-time reduction with an eventual goal of moving to a normal working week of 21 hours." I was interested in particular by these remarks from Robert Skidelsky

Skidelsky was next up. He began by talking about Keynes’s Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren in which Keynes foresaw a radical reduction in working hours and asked why Keynes’s vision hadn’t come to pass. He offered a range of possible explanations (the joys of work, fear of leisure, increased inequality, pressures from employers on a cowed workforce, and pathological consumerism).
Advertisement

I'm not sure there's really anything to be explained here. Forecasting the future is difficult, and the life enjoyed by the "grandchildren" of the people of Keynes' time isn't exactly as he envisioned in Economic Possibilities. But his remarks about reduced working time certainly capture the trends. Here's hours worked per employed person in the UK since 1970:

1326639015124

I couldn't find older data than that, but the basic picture is the same in any developed country. There's a cyclical element so hours worked such that when the labor market is strong people end up working longer hours, but the underlying trend is toward a share of productivity gains being taken in the form of increased leisure. Not only does that trend exist within individual countries, but if you compare countries to each other in the more productive countries people don't work as much:

1326638933678

Keynes' vision is basically coming true. What's more, separate to these trends basically all developing countries are seeing a trend toward people spending a lower share of their life in the workforce and more in school, retirement, or both. That's all more or less how it should be, although presumably reasonable people will disagree around the margin about how best to arrange the details.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.