On work, leisure, and competition

Elizabeth Kolbert, in a recent article the New Yorker, tries to explain some of the reasons why, in the face of great productivity increases and wealth gains in the last 70 years, we still work long hours and are constantly busy. I think the Kolbert and those cited in the article are wrong and miss the main point. 

What is the question?

In the abundantly cited essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” John Maynard Keynes predicts that, because of enormous gains in productivity and economic output,

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. […]. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the  problem for a great while.


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.


In other words: we will be so rich and able to produce so much with so little effort, that the only problem will be what to make of our free time.  Keynes’ predictions about productivity and wealth gains were about right, so… where are the three hour shifts? Why is everyone still working so hard?


The answers offered in Kolbert’s piece:

One of the possibilities offered as a reason is that “instead of quitting early, [people] find new things to need“. And that “the average consumer grows accustomed to what he [sic] has purchased and rapidly aspires to own the next product in line. […] [Consumers ] have reference points that adjust upwards as their circumstances improves”. This explanation feels incomplete: the question is just shifted. It should be clear that people are working because they hope to get something out of it. The question then becomes: why do consumers want more things? This remains unanswered.

Another possible answer in Kolbert’s piece is given by a quote attributed to Joseph Stiglitz: we “learn how to consume by consuming”. Kolbert explains that we work in order to maintain our high-consumption patterns, and this time Kolbert adds a “why”. And the “why” is a cultural one: our consumerist culture (wherever it comes from) pressures us to consume more and more. A consumerist culture becomes part of our habits. It’s very plausible this is an important factor, but there are – as I will argue – far more obvious non cultural factors that keep us working.

Kolbert also cites economies who “challenge the Keynesian presumption that leisure is preferable to labor“. Also cited is the idea that we want to be busy purely because of the social status it comes with being busy (not with having more thing, but just being more busy). So, with this explanation, we work more because we enjoy it, or the status it comes with being busy, more than leisure. There is a certain sense in which this is true, even for those who work jobs that they don’t love: it may feel good to be doing something you know will provide the means of your sustenance. Yet, offer people the same monthly wage they have now to go do whatever they want, and most would quit. This explanation explains very few cases if any.

Kolbert also toys with the idea that we only feel more busy. While how feel may play a role, it’s very obviously not the case that in reality we work 15 hour weeks and it’s just that they feel like 50 hours.

What I think might actually be happening:

I want to put forth the very simple idea that fifteen hour weeks will never come, no matter what productivity gains there are, because of competition (a word never mentioned in Kolbert’s article). Personal competition, and competition for scarce goods.

Consider the example of buying a house in a nice part of your favourite capital. It matters very little that we all have more wealth in real terms than people did one century ago: the house price adjusts accordingly. In fact getting a nice house in a nice city is probably much more expensive now. It doesn’t matter that wealth and national output are now about 6 times larger than when Keynes lived, if he worked a 15 hour week in 2014, he could never afford to have lived in London as he did in the 1930s. Certain goods for which there is high demand, will always only be available to those with the highest capacity to pay, and if you want such a good, if you have to out-earn other potential buyers. And competition doesn’t happen only for houses. It happens for places in the best schools, for access to the best resources of the day, for the best jobs, etc etc. 

And it’s not just about material goods per se. Humans compete for social status and for sexual partners. Think what you will about how much we should care about status and how much partners should care about each other’s relative success… but we do care. If you want to be the best at your job, you won’t do it by working 15 hours a week. If you want to impress a partner with a good income, and have better and more unique experiences with them, them you have to be better than others. No one gets the social position they want by being less qualified and less productive than others. And few people will get the partner they dream of, by being less well off than everybody else.

Scarce goods, social status, and appeal to partners, are examples of things for which we compete. These are things for which it doesn’t matter how much you work in absolute terms, it matters how much you work, and well you fare, compared to others. This isn’t to make a value judgment, it’s to say that this it is the main factor explaining our predicament. So, I suggest you all start working 15 hours a week, and maybe then (and only then), I will move down to 40.




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