The Future of Work... according to John Maynard Keynes
“In 1930, a year into the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes sat down to write about the economic possibilities of his grandchildren. Despite widespread gloom as the global economic order fell to its knees, the British economist remained upbeat, saying that the ‘prevailing world depression … blind[s] us to what is going on under the surface’. In his essay, he predicted that in 100 years’ time, ie 2030, society would have advanced so far that we would barely need to work. The main problem confronting countries such as Britain and the United States would be boredom, and people might need to ration out work in ‘three-hour shifts or a 15-hour week [to] put off the problem’. At first glance, Keynes seems to have done a woeful job of predicting the future. In 1930, the average worker in the US, the UK, Australia and Japan spent 45 to 48 hours at work. Today, that is still up around 38 hours”
15 hour work-weeks?
“Finally, persistent social inequality also helps the 40-hour week persist. Many people have to work 30- to 40-hour weeks simply to get by. As a society, on aggregate, we are able to produce enough for everyone. But unless the distribution of wealth becomes more equal, very few people can afford to cut back to a 15-hour working week. In some countries, such as the US, the link between productivity and pay has broken: recent increases in productivity benefit only the top tier of society. In his essay, Keynes predicted the opposite: a levelling and equalisation, where people would work to ensure other peoples’ needs were met. In one sense, you can see this in the social safety nets that didn’t exist back in 1930. Programmes such as social security and public housing help people get over the low bar of the ‘economic problem’ of base subsistence, but they are insufficient to properly lift people out of poverty, and insufficient to meet Keynes’s ideal of giving everyone a good life.”