Why 3 hour workdays haven’t happened yet


In 1930, John Maynard Keynes made two big predictions. The first was that “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is today.” He got that one right. It’s only been 84 years, but so far, real GDP per capita in the United States has grown sixfold since Keynes’ writing, right at the midpoint of his estimates. His second prediction, following from the first, was that this economic boom would allow for a dramatic reduction in hours worked — “three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week,” perhaps. That did not happen. It’s true that average hours worked per full or part-time employee fell from 1950 to 2011, but from 1,908.73 a year (36.6 per week) to 1703.55 a year (32.6 per week). We’re a long way from 15 hour weeks: And that might overstate things, since it ignores the big increase in labor force participation that occurred over that time frame as women entered the work force in greater numbers. In a report for the OECD, Angus Maddison estimated that hours worked per American (not just per employed person) actually grew slightly between 1950 and 1998. Hours worked per working-age person grew significantly between 1977 and 1999 before falling back to where they were in 1977 again: The typical worker may be working less, but because there are more of them, work isn’t really declining, at least relative to mid-century levels. But why Keynes’ predicted decline didn’t materialize isn’t totally clear. I don’t claim to know the actual answer, but here are five plausible explanations, many drawn from the excellent book Revisiting Keynes, in which a dozen-odd economists (including Nobel winners Robert Solow, Joe Stiglitz, Edmund Phelps, and Gary Becker) offer explanations for why Keynes’ prediction didn’t come true. 1) We haven’t spread the wealth around enough Sorry, Joe the Plumber, more wealth-spreading. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Keynes was wrong in predicting that we would use the tremendous wealth of our age to, as he put it, “solve the economic problem”: to make it possible for all to live, at least at a subsistence level, without performing any labor. But Stiglitz notes that we certainly could solve the problem if we so desired. “If the more than $42 trillion dollar global GDP were divided equally among the earth’s some 6 billion inhabitants, each would have some $7,000, more than enough to bring everyone out of poverty,” he writes, adding that for a family of four, such a division would exceed even the US poverty line. This is even more possible within industrialized countries. Rich countries have the resources to create basic income guarantees, wherein every person gets a certain amount annually ($7,000 a head, perhaps, maybe more) to meet subsistence needs, no strings attached: That’s a far way from passing anywhere, but Stiglitz notes that many European countries have chosen policies that encourage vacation and leisure, with exactly the effect you’d expect: people work less and enjoy more time off. A 2006 paper by Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote similarly concluded that tax and regulatory policy explains the difference between US and European leisure levels, and that while the European approach should, according to conventional economic theory, hurt growth, residents of countries with more mandatory vacation tend to be happier. Robert and Edward Skidelsky, in their book on Keynes’ prediction, echo Stiglitz, and call for policies to encourage leisure. 2) People actually love working (20th Century Fox / Whatnot and Whatnot / Giphy) As the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert noted in her superb piece on Keynes’ prediction, Phelps and Harvard economist Richard Freeman have a very simple explanation for why people haven’t chosen to work less: they don’t want to. “Many people go to work for reasons beyond money, and might prefer to work longer than Keynes’s fifteen hours a week under almost any situation,” Freeman writes. “Workplaces are social settings where people meet and interact. On the order of 40 to 60 percent of American workers have dated someone from their office.” Both economists think this preference is not just prevalent but correct. Phelps argues that “people need to excite their minds with novel challenges — new problems to solve, new talents to develop.” Freeman concludes, “There is so much to learn and produce and improve that we should not spend more than a dribble of time living as if we were in Eden. Grandchildren, keep trucking.” Of course, these arguments come from tenured academics with absolute job security, generous salaries from Ivy League institutions, careers with considerable social prestige, and flexible work hours. The failure of work hours to decline is just fine for people like them who enjoy work, but for people who can’t do what they love or lack identical preferences to Phelps and Freeman’s, there aren’t many ways to opt out. 3) There’s no limit to human desires When is enough enough, Mr. McDuck?(Disney Television Animation / Giphy) The world has money enough to ensure food, water, and shelter to everyone. But most people want more than that, and those desires are ever-increasing. It’d be relatively cheap to give everyone in the world a smartphone if that smartphone were a used Handspring Treo from 2002. But people don’t want Treos. They want iPhones. We want constantly improving consumer technology and are willing to work more to pay for it. “After an initial period of excitement, the average consumer grows accustomed to what he has purchased and … rapidly aspires to own the next product in line,” Becker and Luis Rayo write. This may be, as Stiglitz argues, an artifact of consumerist culture and advertising, rather than a genuine preference. That doesn’t make any less of a constraining factor. This is true even in domains that are considered basic to human existence. There’s no better example than health care. We can afford to give very basic inexpensive health care to everyone for free, but we also want to encourage the development of new, inevitably expensive treatments for any number of conditions. 4) Leisure is expensive Lighting a cigar with Action Comics #1 is a very expensive form of leisure. (FOX) Richard Posner, in his review of the Skidelskys’ book, notes that the appeal of leisure is heavily dependent on what you can actually do with it. Sitting alone in a room with nothing to do is not especially appealing. But leisure activities that are appealing — going to the movies, playing and watching sports, drinking at bars, etc. — cost money. “Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied and exciting leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, engaging in challenging athletic activities, playing video games, eating out, dieting, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity,” Posner writes. “But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. Nor could leisure-activity services be staffed adequately.” This is a bit overstated. A good chunk of Americans’ reported leisure consists of going to church or socializing with friends, which often entail spending money but don’t need to. And even activities that cost money often don’t cost that much. For a working person who already has Netflix and cable subscriptions, the marginal cost of watching 20 hours of TV a week rather than 5 is $0. 5) Most of our wealth is … ourselves Human capital. (Shutterstock) Keynes’ reference point throughout his essay were the lifestyles of British aristocrats, who enjoyed considerable leisure financed by returns on their capital. But that capital was overwhelmingly physical: land, factories, etc. Becker and Rayo note that an increasing share of developed countries’ wealth comes in the form of human capital, which obviously cannot be passively collected. One must work for it to yield returns. “Economic theory would predict that [British aristocrats] would take more leisure than would equally wealthy persons in the future who in fact would be holding the vast majority of their wealth in human capital, rather than land and other assets,” Becker and Rayo write. “This difference is illustrated by the working habits of wealthy individuals in the various Gulf States, who typically get the vast majority of their income from oil revenues. It is said that in many of these countries, such as the Emirates, Qatar, or Kuwait, the typical working day for natives — as opposed to the imported laborers who do not share in oil revenues — is about three to four hours a day.” That, you’ll recall, is about the work schedule Keynes predicted for everyone.


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