In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”. While some of us nerds have quite a few opinions about the essay, most people probably think they’ve never heard of it. And they haven’t…except for the part where we’re all supposed to be working 15 hours a week.
The End of Work (Mostly)
Keynes predicted that as machines and technology improved, the need for human labor would continue to decrease. Each hour a human worked would produce more and more, which would enable us to do the same amount of work in a fraction of the time. We would be living in a world of exciting new technologies and more free time than ever to enjoy them.
Except things haven’t exactly worked out that way…
Here in 2016 our Real (Adjusted for Inflation) GDP Per Capita is $51,389.66. If all of us produced the same amount, that’s how much we would produce. It’s also a whopping 283% increase in the last 70 years..
For reference 15 hours is only 166% less than 40 so we might have even been in the single digits.
Well, a lot of things.
Instead of buying more free time, we bought bigger houses, more cars, TV’s, appliances and electronics, clothes, restaurant meals, etc. We went from one TV in the house to a TV in each room, with the premium cable package and a game console hooked up to each one.
Humans also enjoy competition, new things, social recognition, and purpose – all things we get out of work. There’s also the widening income gap, where the majority of America’s wealth is earned by the top 1% while a large part of the population tries to get by on minimum wage. You can live a comfortable life working 15 hours a week at $100 an hour. Not so much at $10.
Another Look at “Work”
One big argument against buckling down and actually focusing on controlling one’s spending comes in some form of “I love my job/I love what I do”. The rationale is that if you get to do what you love for 40+ hours a week, trying to save something like half your income so you can retire early doesn’t make much sense. And I agree that sometimes our jobs give us that competition, social recognition and purpose mentioned above. Sometimes they’re even fun and enjoyable.
But they can also be dangerous to our health, all-consuming, stressful, un-reliable, and ultimately meaningless.
In 2013 David Graeber published an essay titled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Graeber too asked himself why Keynes’ prediction hadn’t worked out, and decided that instead of less work, we created more work to serve the sole purpose of occupying 40 hours a week. You’re probably thinking “well, we still need doctors and police officers and trash collectors”, and I agree with that. But we also need people with enough free time and energy to start projects, volunteer in their community or meet new people with similar interests, learn new things, and experiment. I’m having trouble coming up with a situation where this is possible if you’re not in college or retired.
Imagine if the only options we had for work were things that had a direct impact on other people. Spending my workweek building a road or recycling garbage doesn’t sound all that appealing. But if I only had to do it two days a week, with the other 5 free to do whatever I choose and the satisfaction of knowing that I contributed, those 15 hours might start to look pretty great and empowering.
My 60 hours a month of work would have all the benefits and very few (if any) of the pitfalls of regular jobs. Plus an extra 100 hours a month to spend time with my family, write a book, start a group, teach a class, or sit and watch everything on Netflix guilt free.
Until I become President and implement my 15 hour workweek we’ll have to make due with what we have. And that’s 40+ hours-a-week-probably-meaningless-jobs. But we also have the knowledge that there is still a lot of good, meaningful, exciting work to do out there in the world, and if you’re honest with yourself, you’d be doing things differently if it weren’t for the money.
Image by Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net