2 minute read

Why we work more

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now, we would only be working 15 hours per week. Though, Keynes never said what we would do with all that leisure time. He was an aristocrat, he would probably want us to write poetry, dance and play the violin. Keynes once said “My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more champagne”.


Sadly enough (or quite fortunately), his prediction never came to life.  But why exactly is this? His logic at the time made a lot of sense; the economy will grow, employees will become more productive, technology will aid all aspects of the work life, and so on.  It made sense that in such a wealthy economy people would work less. He was wrong.

In an episode of NPR News’ Planet Money, economics Harvard professor Richard Friedman explains why Keynes got it wrong;

Human beings are competitive


Keynes did not take into account that we are competitive by nature. This characteristic has been bred in humans for centuries, from when the first gatherer and hunters went out to hunt, to these days. We have competitiveness our DNA. Whether we compete with others or with ourselves, we always want more.


The way we feel about work  


He also didn’t understand that people might actually take pride in what they do.  This certainly applies to people whose work materialises in physical products, such as builders or craftsmen. And something no one can contest - the better you are at your job the harder it is not to do it.


Leisure is not a luxury


When he wrote his essay “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren”, Keynes treated leisure as a luxury good.  The argument was that the more money you have, the nicer things you buy, ergo the more money you have, the more leisure you ‘buy’.  This is called the wealth effect – something a lot of people ignore.


However, researchers observe the opposite of the wealth effect – when people are paid more, they want to work more to get more money. When we are confronted with the choice of working one day or taking it off to go to the beach, a monologue much like this takes place in our heads:


Working one day or going to the beach…

The beach is lovely, but is it £300 pounds lovely?

No, I would rather have the money.”


Scientists call this the substitution effect - a trade-off between two different things. What`s more valuable to you – working or what you’re doing when you’re not working?


The paradox is that Keynes was a workaholic himself. He died in 1946 and in the last part of his life there was not enough time for champagne or leisure.  Then again, he was trying to put the world back together after a devastating war, and created the international financial system we enjoy today.


Professor Friedman’s arguments might point to a sad trap us human beings are caught in. But all in all, he has a whole different view on work. He sees work as we should all see it – not as a means to an end but as a means to evolve:


“ As members of a thinking species on a small planet, in a giant universe with no more than 80 to 90 years of life I think it is wrong to sit on our hunches and enjoy economic wellbeing. We are after all in a great race for life against death, knowledge against ignorance, for exploring and understanding the world around us, before the big contraction or crash or whatever comes next. And hard work is the only way forward. Thank God Keynes was wrong about the strength of human devotion to work. We should not spend more than a dribble of time living as if we were in Eden.”



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