Hey Keynes, whatever happened to our 15-hour work week?

A couple in a Hammock.

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…

Photo credit: Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “Hey Keynes, whatever happened to our 15-hour work week?

  1. Hi, Malcolm,

    To clarify a couple of points re. Bergmann. First off, jobs being “against human nature” is my phrase, not his; however, as he pointed out on this follow up Q&A (http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/11/01/episode-83-follow-up-qa-with-frithjof-bergmann/), he does think that few if any jobs can really be done well “full time,” and also that doing most work day after day forever is crippling, which is getting at the same point. This can be confirmed by anyone’s experience: if you have to sit in an office or whatever all day, is anywhere near all of that time really productive? Things need doing, and people need to do them, and it’s an art to figure out what the ideal chemistry/environment/schedule/personnel mix is for getting the job done so it’s done well and doesn’t damage the person doing it. But that question has rarely REALLY been asked: it’s asked routinely only from the employer’s perspective, i.e. given the norms of working (what people will put up with), how can I get the most out of my employees.

    Second and much more importantly, the comment about the hippie commune is understandable but very off base. Part of the proposal is to promote advances in technology not only to make automate ourselves out of jobs (so we can reduce the work week… this automation is happening already, but let’s embrace it), but also to enable self-providing, i.e. making and growing the things we need using new technologies so that yes, while we might spend some of our newly freed time messing with a hypdroponic urban garden or something, that experience would be like housework is now, i.e. very peripheral, a few hours a week.

    To make such production work, yes, we do need to work in concert: each of us can’t be expected to set up a fabricator/maker-space and such a farm (and whatever other kinds of production facilities end up being required), but sharing a resource like a 3D printer need be nothing like a commune: think about condominiums that share a pool, or small businesses that share an office building, or signing up for a membership at the Y, or any number of other arrangements. The key to New Work planning is to pay attention to what people actually want, what actually works, every step of the way: not to impose some vision of human nature or an ideal state on the process but simply to adjust plans as experience dictates, drawing of course likewise on the many experiences in the past of doing related things, among the lessons of which are that communes are unstable and certainly not a viable mass solution.


    -Mark Linsenmayer

    • Dear Mark,
      Thanks a lot for your reply and taking the time to clarify!
      It was a great Q&A, and I remain impressed with Dr. Bergmann, both for his ideas, as well as his noble efforts to implement them in the real world.
      Point taken on him not saying that jobs are against human nature, but, like you say, he does seem to suggest that our current system of jobs is just a construct biased toward the employer that happens to stipulate 40 hours a week, not something that humans would be “pre-programmed” to do.

      On your second point, yes, saying that it would all lead just to a hippie commune was a bit glib. His fundamental idea of job-work/passion-work/community-work obviously goes much deeper than that, as was clear by him rejecting the idea of a minimum income vehemently, at the same time as wanting to make poverty illegal. Still not sure however who would take out the garbage.

      In any case, hopefully, as you touch upon, the steps we’ve seen the last couple of years toward a sharing economy/collaborative consumption (perhaps Dr. Bergmann would love a company such as Task Rabbit!) and more affordable 3D-printing can start to free up people from job-work and make it easier to create things in passion-work and community-work.

      Again, thanks for commenting.


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