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Work and prosperity
15 January 2013

Whatever happened to the fifteen hour working week?

In 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘The economic possibilities for our grandchildren.’ In it he looks forward to the great improvements that would be brought about by accumulated decades of economic growth. In particular, he envisaged a dramatic shortening of the working week.

In a challenging article for Aeon, John Quiggin summarises Keynes’ argument:

  • “He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century. Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less. This, Keynes thought, would be sufficient to satisfy the ‘old Adam’ in us who needs work in order to be contented.”

Now, that we’re 83 years into that century of economic growth, how close are we to that fifteen hour working week? The answer to that, as you may have noticed, is not very:

  • “...the year 2030 is rapidly approaching, and Keynes’s vision seems further from reality than ever. At least in the English-speaking world, the seemingly inevitable progress towards shorter working hours has halted. For many workers it has gone into reverse.
  • “The situation in Europe was, until recently, very different. 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. Yet even here, and even before the advent of austerity, there were signs of a turnaround.”

Of course, there is an important distinction to be made between trends in the length of the working week for working people and the total number of non-working hours in the population as a whole. If progress on the former has stalled, there’s been a continuing increase in the latter:

  • “...this has not meant more leisure so much as more time in retirement, unemployment or otherwise involuntarily excluded from the labour force. The result has been an inequality of leisure, the counterpart to the growing inequality of income.”

In other words, instead of shortening the working week, the number of non-working hours made possible by economic growth has gone to supporting the ever-expanding retired population, the rise of the workless underclass and, one might add, the expansion of higher education.

So how might we achieve a more equal distribution of leisure time? John Quiggin’s answer is more state intervention:

  • “The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism… that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance…”

Oh dear. Was it the market that created a tax and benefits system that traps people in a culture of dependency? Was it the private sector that allowed early retirement on public sector pensions? Was it big business that decided to expand higher education with so little regard to the relevance of the qualifications thus provided?

No, all of those decisions were taken by governments. Therefore, one may well doubt whether giving the state even more power is the best way forward.

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