No Work Makes Jack A Malcontented Boy

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In “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” John Maynard Keynes wrote that by 2030 or so humans could spend most of their time pursuing leisure:

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

In many respects this echoed Marx nearly eighty-five years earlier, in The German Ideology:

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

For contemporary treatments of similar ideas see John Quiggin and Ronald Dworkin. (Both of these are well worth reading in full.)

You may accept these goals or dismiss them. I would just like to note that we’ve basically achieved them, at the societal level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American spends 3.19 hours per day working. Obviously this mostly means that the distribution of working hours is highly unequal as is the renumeration from work. And the U.S. is hardly the world in this respect.

Still, if you squint hard enough from a high enough perch, we might be working about as much as we should be from a Utopian perspective. Even if you tack on the 1.74 hours per day we spend on “household activities” — from food preparation to lawn care — we’re basically in the realm that Marx envisioned. We spend 2.83 hours per day watching television. Marx really was a 19th century thinker whose outlook does not map easily onto 21st century realities but again: it’s worth knowing where we stand.

Our biggest crisis remains a jobs crisis, locally and globally. People seem to want to work even if their most basic needs are met. They want to work even if it means they would have to forego hunting in the morning or fishing in the afternoon or blogging in the evening. They seem to want to acquire and consume and improve their lives ever more. Keynes viewed this as avarice — a bit strange for him to say, given his relatively luxurious lifestyle — but maybe it isn’t. And if it isn’t then some basic planks of Utopian political theory might need re-thinking.

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3 thoughts on “No Work Makes Jack A Malcontented Boy

  1. Fascinating suggestion. But you have to squint REALLY HARD to accept it as close to true. So why make the claim at all?

    You wrote:
    “People seem to want to work even if their most basic needs are met. They want to work even if it means they would have to forego hunting in the morning or fishing in the afternoon or blogging in the evening.”

    But the workforce participation rate is trending strongly downward. How does fewer people actually looking for work correlate with people seeming to want to work? http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS11300000

    You noted that the BLS estimates Americans over the age of 15 spend an average of about three hours a day on work. As you also note, this is only correct if you ignore the part of the same report that says less than half of Americans do any work at all. Among people who do any work at all, the average is 8.54 hours per day. In a numerological sense, the evidence is congruent with the claim. After all, they both have the number three in them. Is there some other congruency that I didn’t catch?

    Given this, why go here? What’s the relationship between utopian thinkers and the present situation that’s got you working this vein?

  2. Is dropping out of the labor force an ipso facto determination that one does not wish to work? For example, isn’t a person counted as out of the labor force if they decide to pursue further education?

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