In 1930, the brilliant economist John Maynard Keynes thought we’d all be working 15 hours by now. What happened?
Although standards of living are much higher now than at any time in the past, Americans bury themselves in their work. Clocking in an average 34.4 hours per week, we spend way more time at our jobs than people in most of the developed world.
But in life there are two major currencies – money and time. If you’re more than comfortable with your salary, you might be blind to the fact you’re sacrificing your ability to do what you want with your time. And unlike money, time is not fungible. You can only do one thing with the hours you have left in your life: spend them.
One of the major reasons that people are so comfortable trading time for excessive amounts of money is that we define ourselves in terms of our jobs. It’s not our fault. Everything in our society – from the allocation of economic resources to the way we structure public policy – tells us to define the value of other humans in terms of their capacity for productivity in the labor force. This valuation system gives us de facto answers to questions like:
- Should people get access to welfare only if they’re working or looking for work?
- Can people qualify for disability if they can’t find a job because their skills don’t match economic needs?
- Is it okay that CEOs earn 204 times average worker compensation?
This has got to change.
I don’t mean that in a hopey, feely kind of way. I mean that change is inevitable given the increasing automatization of the global economy. Improvements in existing technologies will continue to replace many jobs, not just for low-skilled workers, but professionals and creatives as well. It’s a major shift that few are talking about in mainstream America – when was the last time you heard a 2016 presidential candidate bring up automatization?
Narrowly distributed productivity gains will increase the overall size of the economy, but put many people out of a job. Maybe then we can realize Keynes vision for the future: more people will be free to explore their passions, build communities, and engage in the arts. Maybe people will spend time time traveling and reading, and if they do, I hope they will find this blog helpful.
I also hope people can find these activities meaningful.
Another effect of valuing humans based on their labor force potential: without a job, life feels a little (okay, a lot) less purposeful. And even though I think that having work-centric society is outdated and majorly problematic, this is a feeling I’ve majorly struggled with during my gap year. I’m a self diagnosed workaholic. This is probably why I find consulting such an appealing career.
Even working 20-30 hours a week on my writing (with another 10-15 hours focused on reading and critiquing the work of other writers), I still feel as though I’m in standstill. I’ve got the sinking sensation that my societal contributions stopped when I left school and didn’t immediately pick up gainful employment. Plus, after spending my teenage years avoiding any talk of my own writing (I was afraid of being that person – you know, the friend of a friend who won’t stop talking the novel kicking around in their head), I am finding it incredibly difficult to explain what I do with my time.
So here it is… I write a lot, mostly short stories and a pair of novels (one largely completed but currently on pause, the other in its early stages but full steam ahead). I also read a lot (including some books about places).
Wherever your journeys take you, whether to Africa or the Ethiopian restaurant by your office, remember that if something is important to you, then it has meaning enough.
And in case you got all the way down here and are still wondering what the 5 crazy facts are…
- In 1930, the most prominent living economist predicted his grandchildren would be working 15 hours a week (source).
- Americans work an average of 34.4 hours a week, significantly more than Swedes (30.9 hours) or Germans (26.4 hours) (source).
- American CEOs earn 204 times the hourly compensation of the average worker at their company (source).
- Bringing current technological advancements into the marketplace could replace 45% of the current workforce (source).
- This change is bound to have a major effect on the way we currently value human lives based on productive potential (source).