(in Jeopardy fashion) Why do we work so damn much?
Keynes predicted that, assuming no catastrophic events, the standard of living in advanced economies would be so much higher in 100 years that “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.” Most people would then be working a 15-hour week, which would satisfy their need to work in order to feel useful and contended.
As we approach 2030, how did Keynes do? Keynes’ predictions about capital growth, technology advancement and productivity were clearly wrong. “He massively underestimated the speed of advances in those areas,” said Suzman. We passed the thresholds of capital growth and productivity that he said would be necessary to usher a 15-hour week economic utopia in the 1980s. “Yet, here we are. And we’re working pretty much as long hours as people did in the 1930s when Keynes wrote the essay in the first place.”
Why is that? According to Suzman work is no longer driven by what we need. Instead, it’s driven by what we want and how society regulates or encourages these wants. We’ve long been able to satisfy our needs and wants with a 15-hour workweek. “But as we’ve gotten richer and built more technology, we’ve developed a machine not for ending our wants, not for fulfilling them, but for generating new ones, new needs, new desires, new forms of status competition.”
From a podcast with anthropologist James Suzman.
Suzman has devoted almost thirty years to studying and writing about the Ju’hoansi and other bushmen from the Kalahari Basin, who are among the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherer societies. He recently published Work: A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, a book about his research.