When John Maynard Keynes Predicted a 15-Hour Workweek “in a Hundred Year’s Time” (1930)

Image by IMF, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

That which stands first, and is most to be desired by all hap­py, hon­est and healthy-mind­ed men, is ease with dig­ni­ty.

—Cicero, Pro Ses­tio, XLV., 98

There is much to admire in Roman ideas about the use of leisure time, what Michel Fou­cault referred to as “the care of the self.” The Latin words for work and leisure them­selves give us a sense of what should have pri­or­i­ty in life. Negotium, or busi­ness, is a nega­tion, with the lit­er­al mean­ing of “the nonex­is­tence of leisure” (otium). The Eng­lish word—considered in its parts as “busy-ness”—doesn’t real­ly sound much more appeal­ing.

The notion that every­one, not just a prop­er­tied elite, how­ev­er, should be enti­tled to leisure time came about only rel­a­tive­ly recently—mostly advo­cat­ed by rad­i­cals and trade union­ists. In the U.S., anar­chists and strik­ing work­ers in Chica­go fought against police in 1886 dur­ing the Hay­mar­ket Affair to achieve “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will.” In 1912, women-led immi­grant strik­ers chant­ed “Bread and Ros­es” in Lawrence, Mass­a­chu­setts, pro­claim­ing their right to more than bare sur­vival.

After the achieve­ment of the 40-hour work­week, paid vaca­tions, and oth­er labor con­ces­sions, many influ­en­tial fig­ures believed that egal­i­tar­i­an access to leisure would only increase in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Among them was econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes, who fore­cast in 1930 that labor-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies might lead to a 15-hour work­week when his grand­chil­dren came of age. Indeed, he titles his essay, “Eco­nom­ic Pos­si­bil­i­ty for our Grand­chil­dren.”

Writ­ing at the start of the Great Depres­sion, Keynes finds rea­son for opti­mism. “We are suf­fer­ing,” he writes, “not from the rheumat­ics of old age, but from the grow­ing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painful­ness of read­just­ment between one eco­nom­ic peri­od and anoth­er.” Keynes’ essay con­cerns what he calls the “eco­nom­ic prob­lem,” which is not only the prob­lem of mass unem­ploy­ment but also, in his esti­ma­tion, the abil­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ism to pro­vide a decent stan­dard of liv­ing for every­one. He did not see its fail­ure to do so as evi­dence of a more fun­da­men­tal dys­func­tion:

[T]his is only a tem­po­rary phase of mal­ad­just­ment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solv­ing its eco­nom­ic prob­lem. 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. It would not be fool­ish to con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­i­ty of afar greater progress still.

Many econ­o­mists shared Keynes’ opti­mism through the 1970s, “a time when rev­o­lu­tion­ary change still seemed like an immi­nent pos­si­bil­i­ty,” writes John Quig­gan, pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Queens­land.” Utopi­an ideas were every­where, exem­pli­fied by the Sit­u­a­tion­ist slo­gan of 1968: ‘Be real­is­tic. Demand the impos­si­ble.’” Cult fig­ures like Buck­min­ster Fuller explained, as had Keynes decades ear­li­er, how tech­nol­o­gy could free every­one from the tyran­ny of the labor mar­ket and the scourge of “use­less jobs.”

Keynes and oth­ers made a “case for leisure, in the sense of free time to use as we please, as opposed to idleness”—a dis­tinc­tion that draws from the ancient philoso­phers. “But Keynes offered some­thing quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not mere­ly for an aris­to­crat­ic minor­i­ty.” He was, obvi­ous­ly, mis­tak­en. “At least in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world,” Quig­gan writes, “the seem­ing­ly inevitable progress towards short­er work­ing hours has halt­ed. For many work­ers it has gone into reverse.”

That has cer­tain­ly been the case for the major­i­ty of work­ers in the U.S., at least before the nov­el coro­n­avirus led to mass lay­offs and reduced hours. What hap­pened? For one thing, the ascen­sion of neolib­er­al eco­nom­ics in the late 1970s, and the elec­tions of Ronald Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatch­er, began a long slow decline of orga­nized labor. “Employ­ers have had increas­ing desire for work­ers to work long hours,” says Juli­et Schor, pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Boston Col­lege. “And work­ers haven’t had the pow­er to resist that upward pres­sure.”

Keynes’ pre­dic­tions res­onat­ed with NPR’s David Kesten­baum, who inter­viewed some of Keynes’ descen­dants, the clos­est thing he had to grand­chil­dren, in a short seg­ment on Plan­et Mon­ey in 2015. One Keynes rela­tion points out the irony that the man him­self “died from work­ing too hard.” How can those of us who aren’t glob­al­ly famous econ­o­mists help end the tyran­ny of over­work? Maybe a lot more strik­ing work­ers mak­ing demands; maybe a uni­ver­sal basic income or some­thing like Bhutan’s “gross domes­tic hap­pi­ness” index?

Keynes may have erred in his pre­dic­tions of the future (though he seems to have under­stood the needs of his moment well enough), but he may not have been wrong to view the eco­nom­ic tur­moil of his time as a rad­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty for utopi­an change and bet­ter liv­ing for every­one. Over­turn­ing the dire con­di­tions of the present for our own grand­chil­dren will require not only hard work, but the leisure to do some vision­ary futur­ist think­ing. Read Keynes’ full essay here.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes

Buck­min­ster Fuller Rails Against the “Non­sense of Earn­ing a Liv­ing”: Why Work Use­less Jobs When Tech­nol­o­gy & Automa­tion Can Let Us Live More Mean­ing­ful Lives

The Case for a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income in the Time of COVID-19

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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