Why Do We Work So Much And Take So Little Leisure?

America’s obsession with work has produced a record-low unemployment rate and the developed world’s shortest vacations. It has also produced a backlash.

A loosely organized movement has emerged that urges its members to live modestly and work less. One version, known as FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early), is popular among high-earning young professionals. Adherents aim to save much of what they earn and retire at 40. However, as financial independence guru Mr. Money Mustache points out, the basic idea of living within your means and rejecting slavery to work is just as good an idea, or even a better one, for people with modest incomes.

None of this is new. In a 1928 lecture, John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would live in a world where people worked fare less than they did in his own time:

We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years — in in our own lifetimes I mean — we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed. . . .
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well. . . .
Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week . . . is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

Paradoxically, it turns out that we are actually ahead of Keynes’ schedule in terms of productivity, yet we still work only about 20 percent fewer hours per week than they did in the 1920s. Why?

The sense in which Keynes’ prediction was correct

Keynes’ prediction focused largely on the supply and demand for material goods — “the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture.” The fact is that as a nation, we already average less than 15 hours a week working in those areas. In that sense, Keynes’ prediction has already come true. Let’s look at some numbers.

In the United States, mining, logging, manufacturing, construction, and farming account for only 19 percent of all hours worked. The average workweek for the labor force as a whole is 33 hours. That means each working American would have to spend just 6.3 hours a week producing material goods if the work were spread across the entire labor force.

But wait — isn’t that just because so many of the goods Americans consume are produced in China and elsewhere? Fair enough. Let’s try again.

Instead of starting with employment, let’s look at GDP. Consumer goods (including durable and nondurable, farm and nonfarm, but excluding services) account for 25 percent of U.S. GDP. That includes consumption of imported goods, which exceed the value of exported goods by about 6 percent of GDP. If we suppose that Americans were to produce all goods consumed in the United States, at an average level of productivity, and at the same time abandoned production of goods for export, it would still only take 10 hours of the average 33-hour week to meet the demand for consumer goods in full — well below Keynes’ prediction of three hours a day.

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