We Are Approaching A Utopia Of Leisure

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 2 2012 1:48 PM

We Are Approaching A Utopia Of Leisure

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I really loved John Quiggin's article on J.M. Keynes' vision of a leisure society with less work. Quiggin's focus is on the limits to Keynes' vision regarding the third world, the status of women, and "women's work" in childrearing and household tasks paired with the idea that Keynes' basic point survives those critiques. But as an aside, he said that Keynes was wrong to think that we would in fact make progress toward this goal:

So on a first reading, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ seemed prophetic. Yet, 40 or so years later, I am a grandparent myself, the year 2030 is rapidly approaching, and Keynes’s vision seems further from reality than ever. At least in the English-speaking world, the seemingly inevitable progress towards shorter working hours has halted. For many workers it has gone into reverse.
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This is an argument I often seem to find myself in with proponents of a leisure society, but it seems to me that the trends are precisely in the direction we want. People are spending more years in school, more years in retirement, and average workyears for people who are working are in fact falling even in the English-speaking world:

It's true that Anglophones work more than Continentals and it's true that Americans work more than most Anglophones and it's true that this looks particularly anomalous in light of how rich the English-speaking countries are. But even in America the trend is (rightly) toward less work. Speaking to Quiggin's point about lacunae in Keynes' original statement of the issue, it's worth noting that America has been importing people from Mexico at a fairly steady clip during this period and Mexicans have the longest working hours in the OECD so the U.S.-specific time series probably understates the extent to which the typical American probably works less than his ancestors.

Last but by no means least, it's worth saying that consumption / leisure tradeoffs happen along dimensions other than pure hours worked. Many people could increase their incomes by shifting into jobs that are more dangerous or unpleasant. If you offered me a job as a corporate lawyer where I would earn the exact same salary as I currently get, but only work half as much I'd turn you down despite the higher wages and notional increase in "leisure" time because I strongly prefer to spend working hours as a writer than as a lawyer. More broadly, it's no small achievement that workplace injury rates have fallen substantially. Making work more pleasant and less deadly should be a priority along with making long working hours less necessary.

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

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