Working Less – Keynes’s Grandchildren

A museum in Hanoi - getting their priorities right?

Sign outside a (closed) museum I tried to visit in Hanoi – getting their priorities right?

What has happened to the ‘leisure society’ that J M Keynes predicted back in 1930? In his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, Keynes predicted that on achieving greater economic improvement we would have a whole new attitude to wealth, resulting in less time spent on economic pursuits, and therefore a shorter working week and much greater leisure and freedom.

We’re  17 years away from that 100-year date, and right now it seems that Keynes was far off the mark. There hasn’t come a time when people have decided their material needs have been satisfied to the extent that they can work less and devote their energies to non-economic pursuits. We are far from the 15-hour working week that Keynes advocated. According to the 2010 CIPD report Working hours in the recession the number of long-hour workers in the UK has started to rise again following the loss of nearly 1 million jobs and a shift to part-time working at the start of the economic downturn. Presenteeism is increasing in the hope of workers holding onto precious jobs. And this attitude is continually espoused by those in power, or as William Hague put it a year ago: ‘There’s only one growth strategy: work hard.’ (Telegraph, 12 May 2012)

By EU standards, the UK has a high proportion of ‘long hours’ workers, and still the CBI lobbies continually for the UK to maintain its opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive (which permits a maximum 48-hour working week) in the name of greater ‘flexibility’. And the average Briton works 150 fewer hours than an American (where there is no legal or collective requirement to provide a minimum amount of annual leave) and less than Japanese and Australian workers. The long hours culture in many developed countries doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I read a Daily Mash spoof article yesterday, ‘Everyone to live at work by 2028’, which hits on the point pretty well: “THE government has revealed new measures to help you spend all your time doing work.” The Daily Mash makes light of current issues, but they also highlight a serious point here: are workers complicit in this long hours culture? Are we in fact responsible for choosing to work long hours to keep up the promise of ever-improving living standards? As the fake office worker puts it in that article:

“Work is great but we mustn’t lose sight of the really important things, like having more expensive things than others in your social group.”

If that is the case, then why do we do it? Is it really a choice between working all hours of the day (and sometimes night) or losing our standard of living? Again, it seems up to each of us to strike our own balance and decide when enough is enough. But when will the tide turn?

More on Keynes’s ‘Economic Possibilities’:

Larry Elliott in the Guardian: Whatever happened to Keynes’ 15-hour working week?

Make Wealth History –


One thought on “Working Less – Keynes’s Grandchildren

  1. This is a good article. It’s connected a bit to Doreen Massey’s recent Comment Is Free piece talking about the language of ‘work’ – what we understand by ‘work’ has now become far removed from Keynes’ and others’ perceptions.
    We don’t therefore, necessarily have to reform the workplace, but maybe refine the concept of what we consider the ‘place of work’ to be

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