The 21st century and the 15-hour week?

Escrito el 30 septiembre 2013 por Gayle Allard en Diccionario de Economía, Miscelánea

In 1928, John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, predicted to a group of young students that within decades GDP and productivity would have risen so much that workers would have all of their needs covered.  Beyond that point, he predicted, they could reduce their working hours until they eventually could work only 15 hours a week and devote the rest of their time to developing and enjoying themselves through leisure[1].

Even though the Great Depression occurred soon after Keynes´ prediction, he still saw it as only a pause in the process.  And in many ways it seems that what he predicted must have been fulfilled, at least on the output side.  Surely we could provide a living standard as good as the average standard of the 1930s with a minimal amount of labor.

So what has gone wrong?  The problem is not surprising to economists, since “unlimited wants” have always been part of the two-pronged economic problem that leaves us always facing scarcity.  But couldn´t we do something about this, and stop the obsessive rush to acquire more that has made stress and overwork such predominant features of modern life?

There may be ways to move in this direction.  A new book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? says that a good starting point would be to move away from measures of success that focus exclusively on GDP and GDP growth.  They recommend a broader measure of welfare that includes  health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure.  Richard Layard, the UK economist whose latest research focuses on happiness, made a similar call several years ago when he proposed alternatives to GDP as measures of national welfare in the UK.

The Skidelskys also have some specific policies that would redirect us from obsessive consumption and debt acquisition.  These include a guaranteed basic citizen income, a Tobin tax on financial transactions, an expenditure tax and controls on advertising so that consumerism is not constantly stimulated.  They also speak out for measures to promote equality of incomes, since high GDP growth does little for the average standard of living if most of the benefits are kept by the very wealthy.

The book´s recommendations come at a time that should be one of deep thinking in the developed world about where we are going, and why.  Growth is unlikely to deliver the constant increases in material goods in coming years that it has given us in the past.  Yet it surely is time to ask ourselves why we need all of those extra goods after all.  Maybe rather than setting GDP growth or per-capita income levels as an objective, we should shoot for a shorter working week…with 15 hours as our goal?

[1] Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren


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