Has technology given us more leisure time or less? Keynes thought that we would work only 15-hour weeks in the 21st century, like Marketplace recently mentioned. We were supposed to produce enough goods and services to satisfy the population even if each person worked less. Instead it seems we work more and more, and have less and less time.
This is an interesting question in this age where we’re facing stubbornly high unemployment, that seems to have become structural. The Partially Examined Life podcast recently had an episode featuring Frithjof Bergmann. Bergmann says it’s the focus on constant growth that has led to the unemployment. He argues for what he calls “New Work”, where people work with what they enjoy and spend their leisure time doing work for the community. He argues that “jobs” is a relatively new concept, that goes against human nature. Based on his book detailing the “pleasures and sorrows of work”, Alain de Botton would certainly agree that most of the work we do is by necessity only. It is an attractive idea that we could achieve more leisure time to focus on higher human needs, but following Bergmann’s ideals might mean we all end up on a hippie commune doing organic farming.
Bergmann also argues that it’s the focus on constant growth in our markets and society that has led to the high unemployment we’re seeing. Cato Institute had a podcast the other week on the limits of growth. There, Brink Lindsey referenced Tyler Cowen‘s book The Great Stagnation, saying that growth was becoming harder and harder given that all the “low hanging fruit” has been plucked in terms of innovations. It’s inarguably true that creating smartphone apps is not furthering our civilization as a whole, and the tough problems facing us, like climate change, require a different level of innovation.
We also keep seeing inane company responses to the limitless search for growth, such as the mergers between Publicis and Omnicom, or between Random House and Penguin. Doesn’t the digital economy mean that companies need to become more nimble and faster? Instead, we’re seeing companies merge and create slow-moving behemoths.
It is certainly true that the big innovations are not valued by the market. VC firms don’t invest in the companies that are trying to solve the hardest issues, Pharma firms only buy up small biotech firms instead of making their own investments, and most tellingly of all, Google X, where they’re really trying to take moonshots and solve big problems, is valued as “neutral to benign” by the market.
Would it be possible to find a new model where we do just the work we enjoy and enjoy more leisure time, and where some people work on the issues most pressing for humanity as a whole? Or is it incompatible with our market economy? One of the solutions to the growth limits was also mentioned by Cato recently, in a podcast with Michael Clemens discussing how migration boosts GDP. Perhaps the French were on to something after all when they stipulated the much-maligned 35-hour week? They certainly have defined what we mean by leisure. Let’s all migrate there. As long as they abandon their 75% tax rate…
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