Why hasn’t economic progress lowered work hours more? One of Keynes’s most famous essays is his “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes predicts that within one hundred years — which would bring us to 2030 — most scarcity will have disappeared and most individuals will work no more than fifteen hours a week. My question is a simple one: Why wasn’t Keynes right? Why have working hours remained as long as they have? Why hasn’t progress taken a more leisurely and less material form than what we have observed? Investigating that issue will help us get at the question of just how much progress has occurred. Under one view, Western life has been caught in a kind of rat race, and a lot of the gains of progress are illusory. For instance there is the argument that higher incomes are largely consumed as part of a futile race to win relative status, and living standards aren’t nearly as high as they might appear. Under some alternative scenarios, people haven’t moved to Keynes’s scenario for some good reasons, such as enjoying work more than we might think, or other hypotheses, as I will outline. In that case the observed changes in real income are robust, and measured correctly, or progress may even be greater than income measurements would indicate. I hope that addressing Keynes’s paradox can help us better understand this longstanding debate on the nature of modern progress.
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