A 15-hour work week sounds great, but we'd still want more

Our failure to spend more time in leisure is a result of our desire for material wealth with an emphasis on output growth for its own sake

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 4:03am

Last Tuesday, Monitor looked at the rise of what it euphemistically called "billshut jobs".

The article was inspired by London School of Economics professor David Graeber, who set out to solve a puzzle.

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the early 21st century, advances in technology would require us to work for no more than 15 hours a week, allowing us to spend the rest of our time in leisure.

Why, wondered the LSE professor, has this prediction so signally failed to come true?

Graeber concluded that although in developed economies, industrial, agricultural and domestic occupations had indeed been automated largely out of existence, they had been replaced by vast numbers of jobs in public relations, management consultancy, human resources and similarly unproductive fields that kept millions busy achieving nothing at all.

"It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working," he argued. "The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger."

Monitor thought the explanation was less a conspiracy, more a demonstration of Parkinson's Law, which decrees that any task swells in importance and complexity in proportion to the time available. As a result, "a lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure".

As you might imagine, the column elicited a considerable response, most jocular, but some serious.

My thanks to the managing director of one British company, who blamed the proliferation of unproductive jobs on the ballooning influence of the state, which in Britain at least appears to be doing its best to stifle enterprise with red tape, tying up small companies with new regulations at the rate of dozens a month.

I am especially grateful, however, to the good folk at publishing house Penguin China, which sent over a newly released paperback by Robert and Edward Skidelsky.

How Much Is Enough? also sets out to explain where Keynes went wrong, although at a rather more cerebral level than last Tuesday's Monitor.

As the accompanying charts show, Keynes' forecast of output per head was remarkably accurate. It was just his prediction for working hours that was so wide of the mark.

The father and son, historian and philosopher team of Skidelsky and Skidelsky blame this failure to enjoy the leisure that ought to be ours on our economic insatiability: our desire for the material tokens of relative wealth, exacerbated by the failings of our modern economic system, with its undue emphasis on output growth for its own sake.

On even the most cursory reading, there is a lot of wisdom in what they write. For example, their criticism of the world's obsession with gross domestic product is especially pertinent.

As China is now finding, GDP is of limited use in gauging economic development. It's great at measuring output, but tells you nothing about the cost of that output in environmental or human welfare terms.

But although they rightly ascribe our urge for more material wealth - iPhones, cars, luxury holidays, whatever - to our desire to possess more than our neighbours, Skidelsky and Skidelsky still underestimate the extent to which humans are a competitive species.

Millions of years of evolution have equipped us to compete against each other, and for many, even most, of us, material goods - accumulated by long hours of work - are the way we attempt to show each other that we are winning the competition.

It may be shallow, futile and destructive. But it's how we are.

Alas, redirecting this competitive impulse away from gross materialism towards something more constructive is a task far, far beyond Keynes or any other economist.