Imagine you lived in a perfect society where you had enough food, clothing and shelter so you didn’t need to struggle to make a living. You’d have access to education, entertainment and a reasonable amount of goods and services. You’d be comfortable, but not rich in the conventional sense. If all your immediate needs were met and you didn’t have to work many hours, what would you do with your time?
This might seem like a pointless question to ask, but I believe it is a critical one of the 21st Century.
The Leisure Society
Back in 1930, during the great depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about a coming age of leisure and abundance.
I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge.
Keynes was predicting that it would be possible to get to 15 hour workweeks by 2030 just from slow gradual improvements in productivity. After 83 years, it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress towards that age of leisure, however, I feel that is more a result of our own individual choices, not any real economic limitations.
In terms of productivity, there is little reason why we don’t have 15 hour workweeks now. We all know how compound interest works. Interest on interest can build up to a fortune over time. The same goes for productivity. With only a 2% productivity improvement per year, it would take about 35 years to double productivity. With a doubling in productivity, we could all potentially work half as much.
After a hundred years of 2% productivity growth, we would be more than seven times as productive. That means we could produce seven times as much, or we could produce the same amount in 1/7th the time. Due to declining productivity in recent decades, we haven’t quite kept up with the 2% rate on average, however, we’ve still made massive progress. 15 hour workweeks should be possible, given what we have accomplished.
Why Don’t We Have 15 Hour Workweeks?
The math makes sense. We should all be in an age of leisure of abundance, yet we continue to work many hours with long commutes, in jobs that most of us don’t particularly like.
The problem is that most of us tend to value consumption of goods and services more than extra leisure time. Apparently, bigger houses, newer cars and more possessions are more important to us than the time to do what we truly enjoy.
We believe that buying stuff for our families is better than spending time with them. We’ve grown to value shopping and watching TV more than time spent on our own hobbies, interests and dreams. We don’t live in communities, we live in markets. We are not citizens, we are consumers.
Another barrier to shorter workweeks is the growing problem of income inequality, particularly in countries like the US where the rich are getting fabulously richer. If wealth were more equitable distributed, like it is in many European countries and Japan, we could have shorter workweeks and more time for maternity and sick leave, not to mention universal health care and subsidized education.
The US is the obvious outlier. While the rest of the world, including China, is striving to improve the well-being of their citizens, the US is still preoccupied with corporate profits and GDP growth.
Progress Towards the Age of Leisure
We’ve certainly made progress on reducing our work loads. Legislation to cut back work to 40 hours a week, the banning of child labour in advanced countries and mandatory schooling, all combined to drastically curtail the estimated 3200 hour workweeks found early in the industrial revolution.
More forward looking countries have managed to improve working conditions in recent years as well. The Netherlands appears to be the first country to get below 30 average working hours per week. Also, John Quiggen reports that,
Germany’s work hours declined from 2,387 hours annually in 1950 to 1,408 in 2010. France’s declined from 2,241 hours annually in 1950 to 1,552 in 2010.
It’s clear that better working and living conditions are possible, if we had the political will to follow through. It’d require a re-evaluation of priorities at all levels of society. We’d have to change our notions of people as workforces, to people as citizens. We’d need to properly value unpaid activities like parenting, community service, volunteering and civic responsibility. It’d also require a shift in our personal priorities from consumption, television and work, to more time spent with family and friends, in our communities, on global contribution and on non-monetary personal pursuits.
It seems silly to suggest that we rather spend time in front of TVs and computers or in shopping malls, rather than with people we care about. Yet, this is precisely what we choose as a modern societies. I can’t help but think it’s a form of psychopathy. Is consumerism making us insane? Take a test here to see how you fare.
Our World of Abundance and Opportunity
When I talk or write about the great abundance we have in our lives now, I often get disagreements based on the substantial problems the world is facing. There are still about 2 billion people that live in abject poverty, almost a billion of those don’t have access to clean drinking water. There are tens of millions of refugees without a country to call home. The global sex trade is a multi-billion dollar industry. Millions of children die every year for lack of vaccines that cost as little as $5. Clearly there are problems.
However, for those of us able to read this blog post, life is pretty damn good. It may be hard to imagine what it would’ve been like in the early 1900’s, but try to consider a life without indoor plumbing, no electricity, no TVs, no refrigerators, no washing machines, no computers, no smart-phones, no internet, few opportunities for international travel, primitive dentistry and barbaric medical practices by today’s standards.
Life has become drastically better no matter how you measure it. Work is safer and physically less demanding. We have vastly more choice in terms of occupations, hobbies, travel, food, friendships, culture and anything else we can imagine. Average lifespans more than doubled in the 20th century, so by that measure alone, our lives are fantastically better.
Scarcity Still Lives
Despite this abundance, most of us choose a level of consumption that keeps us working long hours in jobs we don’t particularly like, just to pay for it all. It’s form of self-imposed slavery. There are certainly cases of predatory banking and credit card practices that practically bully low-income people into debt, but for the most part we voluntarily put ourselves into this situation by buying more stuff. As a society we put ourselves into debt servitude.
I’ve recently heard that as many as 40% of Canadians live paycheque to paycheque. (Yes, I am Canadian). 🙂 We work to pay for the car that primarily serves to get us to work. How much of our monthly salaries go towards the clothes, food, coffee, snacks, etc. that we buy only because we work? Better paid jobs, encourage us to buy ever larger houses and more possessions, requiring us to work more to pay for it.
Does maximizing the quality of our lives equal maximizing consumption? I don’t think many would answer yes to that question, yet it is precisely how we choose to live. Individuals focus on their next big purchase. Corporations look for profit growth. Nations obsess over GDP growth.
The things that should matter get neglected. Our own health, the well-being of the world’s poorest, our water and food supplies, our air, our natural environment, wild animals, the safety of our communities, basically, everything that truly adds value to life, gets trampled on the race to ever more consumption and profits.
We are like a snake eating our own tail. Collectively, we are insane.
Do you want a Three-Day Workweek?
If you could consume 20% percent less, to work 20% fewer hours, would you choose to do so?
It might mean getting rid of your car, renting a smaller apartment rather than buying a big house in the suburbs, cutting out cable TV, eating out less often, making coffee in the morning rather than going to a cafe, etc. Would you make those minor sacrifices for an extra day-off every week?
I don’t think it’s very hard for most people in richer countries to reduce their expenses by 20%. My wife and I have managed to cut back our living costs by about 75% and we are much happier for it.
Is a four-day workweek worth 20% less consumption? Is a three-day workweek worth cutting back consumption 40%?
The things we buy decide the life we live. A $60,000 car equals three years of travel for my wife and I. A $2,500 mortgage payment are two return flights to Asia, Europe or South America. A hundred dollar bottle of wine is a week of dining out in Chiang Mai.
What Would You Do with the Extra Time?
Shorter workweeks are certainly possible. I’ve met hundreds of people proving it. The important question is, What would you do with the extra time?
Would you watch more TV? Would you spend more time at the shopping mall? Would you be bored because you had too much free time?
Or, would you spend more time with family and friends? Would you spend more time volunteering? Would you write a book? Would you create art? Would you start a business?
What would you do with an extra 10 or 20 hours per week?
Why aren’t you doing that now?
Here’s a great recording by Alan Watts,
What would you like to do if money were no object?