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.