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‘Commuting is one of the things we hate.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
‘Commuting is one of the things we hate.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Keynes' theory

Where’s our life of leisure? Add to ...

In their new book, How Much is Enough?: The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life, the British father-and-son team of Robert (political economist) and Edward (philosopher) Skidelsky cite the famous prediction made by John Maynard Keynes in 1930: Assuming that productivity levels would continue to rise, Keynes said, his grandchildren and great grandchildren would likely have to work only 15 hours a week. The rest would be leisure.

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Man, said Keynes, would then confront “his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Although Western societies have continued to be more productive and working hours have declined, we aren’t even close to enjoying the bounty of leisure promised by Keynes.

What went wrong? And, why, when we could be taking two-hour lunches, three-day weekends and longer vacations, do we continue to work so hard?

According to the Skidelskys, the free-market economy is the villain. It allows employers to dictate terms of work and “inflames our innate tendency toward competitive, status-driven consumption.” Keynes failed to see that “the evils of capitalism … might become permanently entrenched, obscuring the very ideal they were initially intended to serve.”

That’s one view, but other economists, sociologists and leisure experts have their own ideas.

Why don’t we have the leisure that Keynes predicted we’d have by now and that, measured by our progress, we could have?

“Keynes underestimated the human desire for relative needs – beyond our basic needs. We think we need more. As a developed society, we can never have enough – bigger cars become a need, rather than a luxury or want.” – Amanda Johnson, professor of kinesiology and recreation management, University of Manitoba

“I doubt that Keynes could even imagine people wanting to live in places – the suburbs, rural areas – 30, 60, or more minutes away from work. Commuting times have grown exponentially over the last few decades and, not too surprisingly, commuting is one of the things we hate the most.” – Gordon Walker, professor of recreation, University of Alberta

“Captains of industry have managed to convince workers that they could make a few more bucks to buy new toys by working the same hours. And Americans don’t know how to use leisure.” – John Robinson, professor of sociology, University of Maryland

“I think we do enjoy more leisure – meaning non-productive activities – than meets the eye: Add all the time we spend on Facebook, surfing the net, gaming, or on our mobile devices texting one another, all the time spent web shopping. Technology has taken over not only work, but also leisure.” – Nicole Fortin, professor of economics, University of British Columbia

“Some studies show that Americans actually do have more leisure now than, say, 40 years ago. However, most of that new ‘leisure’ has been taken up by TV watching. Those studies were done in the late 1990s and I suspect the screen-time phenomenon would be even stronger now.Many people do indeed have more discretionary time than they believe they have, but they fill this time with busy activities that feel less like contemplative leisure, which I believe was the ideal Keynes was after. Importantly, almost all researchers conclude that regardless of what we actually spend our time on, most of us report feeling as if we have less time now. That perception is important, and has ties to well-being and happiness.” – June Cotte, professor of marketing, Ivey School of Business, Western University

“Generally, people do have more leisure, except at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, where they are always working or looking for work. Most people, however, are caught in a work-and-spend ethic.They aspire to a nicer house, car, clothing and to keep up with their neighbours. The only way is to make more money and that takes work. Others manage to get off the treadmill – a shift to voluntary simplicity – and that breaks open some leisure time, though the next question is – what will I do with it? It’s not just about hedonic pleasures, watching more TV and drinking yourself under the table. People know much less about serious leisure, where you develop yourself: hobbies, amateur activities, substantial volunteering.” – Robert Stebbins, professor Emeritus, University of Calgary

“Many people, in fact, are taking more leisure – but how it is taken and spaced varies with circumstance. Recall ‘Freedom 55,’ a term one heard a lot before the Crash – never now, which suggests that economic loss is at work.Many take their leisure on the job – coffee breaks and the like – rather than after work at the local pub/tavern.” – Chris Green, professor of economics, McGill University

“Today’s emphasis on meaningful leisure finds many people looking for some extrinsic benefit. For purists, that does not meet the basic criterion of intrinsic motivation as a defining quality of leisure. Unobligated time is only one way to define leisure, and perhaps not the most effective.There’s an old adage: ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’<TH>Some schools of thought recognize one’s ideal work as a form of leisure, or even play. So individuals who ‘work’ hard may actually enjoy what they do. Once their dedication results in stress or poor health, then the negative side effects indicate that they are not at peace – spiritually, intellectually or physically. They are out of balance. In general, technology has decreased support personnel in industry. Companies that used to employ clerical support staff now expect anyone with access to technology to become relatively self–sufficient, and accessible 24/7/365. For many, having the courage to unplug results in such high levels of anxiety (what did I miss?) that they can’t relax, clear their heads or mentally disconnect from family or work obligations. Even scheduling a vacation or spa day can result in frustration – having to rearrange other responsibilities and face the work and unanswered e-mails upon return to routine. Personal e-mail and household management takes time and is no less onerous.” – Veda Ward, professor of recreation, California State University

“Leisure did increase over the last 50 years. Prime-aged men have reduced market work hours in the U.S. Most of this occurred prior to the 1980s. Prime-aged women have reduced time spent working in cooking, cleaning, etc. In the last 30 years, however, high-educated individuals have experienced a slight leisure decline, while low-educated individuals have experienced gains. So there is still some cross-sectional heterogeneity that needs to be explored. Finally, because retirement ages have increased only modestly, relative to increases in life spans, the amount of lifetime leisure experienced over the last 50 years has been dramatic. [But] these additional gains occur post retirement. We always retired around 65 (on average). In recent years, we are living to our early 80s; in 1960, we only lived to the early 70s. So Keynes was not really wrong.” – Erik Hurst, professor of economics, University of Chicago

“Time has the quality of pace as well as duration. The pace of life has accelerated, as efficiency has become the number-one value of the U.S. – it’s almost number one in Canada, but things are a bit slower there. … Efficiency and the open-ended materialism and greed that characterize our culture combine to make time seem scarce. And the desire to increase the marginal utility on time means that all human activity is sped up. Activities that can't be sped up decline in popularity. Almost all sports, for example, have been sped up – or attempts are being made to do so.” – Geoffrey Godbey, Professor Emeritus, Penn State University

 

Why do people continue to work so hard?

“People, and many economists, believe we can’t afford to work less – that we need to work to keep our economy going. This is a cultural belief, rather than an economic reality. North American society has created a culture where material goods are valued more than leisure time. As a result, while people do continue to value leisure time, they believe they must work to have the right to leisure time.” – Amanda Johnson

“The Alberta Recreation and Parks Association did a neat survey in the 1997 where they asked a simple but elegant question: What is most important to you: work, leisure, or both? The responses were 43%, 29%, and 27%, respectively. In 2007, they asked the same question and found that leisure was now most important (46%), followed by work (32%), and then both (21%). This finding, along with some research on the values of Millennials (those born in 1990 or after, such as the university students I teach), suggest that leisure is at least as, if not more important than work. So what's up? Well, we're stuck in a seriously crummy economy, with a millstone around our neck in the form of high household debt. But just you wait. I’m playing the potential fool here I know, but I really do see a fundamental change coming in how Canadians value their leisure, once the world economy gets straightened out.” – Gordon Walker

“It’s seen as a virtue.” – John Robinson

“Except for the financially independent, people aren’t really free to choose their hours of work. They are either caught in the rat race or trying to make ends meet.” – Nicole Fortin

“This is obviously a difficult question. Economist Robert Frank would likely argue that what is happening is a sort of Darwinian effect. Drastically simplifying this argument, it is essentially: If I work harder, I may be able to buy a bigger house and live in a better neighbourhood. But if everyone works harder, we are all relatively in the same position we were before, only now we are all working harder. Frank uses examples from nature – the male moose with larger antlers ‘wins’ by getting to mate more. But over time, as all male moose evolve to have larger and larger antlers, this becomes a problem for the group (reduced mobility, etc.). So I think this individual vs. group process is playing out somewhat in the work/leisure domain, with everyone feeling they should work harder, but no one really gaining an advantage from doing so.” – June Cotte

“Some work is hugely fulfilling and is fundamentally and psychologically leisure. You see it in the professions, small business, consulting, where people just love their work. For them it’s leisure. It’s not a big group, but I’m one of them.” – Robert Stebbins

“Working longer may be an indication people are not necessarily ‘working hard,’ measured in terms of effort per unit time.” – Chris Green

“People continue to work hard because the work ethic is reinforced, often without regard to working smart. Hard work is still measured by over-work, and those who work inefficiently are often rewarded with additional help or overtime. There’s increased pressure to combine work, family and education. Individuals that can’t successfully juggle these obligations, or choose not to, are considered lazy and unworthy of support or promotion. People often work more and more hours, but accomplish relatively little more than during a traditional workday, due to fatigue, inattentiveness or the need for frequent breaks. Some people prefer to work long hours and are more productive when they do, so individual preferences must be considered in assessing quality of leisure. Work, paid or not, can be part of self-affirmation and identity. Many find relaxation and fulfilment from more than one type of activity. This may mean interspersing leisure moments through the week, rather than waiting for long periods of down-time. Individuals with too little leisure may need to broaden their repertoire of activities. But there’s no ‘one size fits all’ model of successful leisure. How individuals experience leisure often results in the perception of leisure deficit. But by re-thinking how time is used and organized, one may achieve a greater sense of leisure empowerment and balance.” – Veda Ward

“We’re working hard in the market sector, but time devoted to work at home has fallen. Vacuum cleaners, microwaves, restaurants, etc. have all reduced the time we spend maintaining our households.” Working in the market sector allows us to afford time-saving devices at home. This is all the more true, given that the price of these devices has fallen, relative to market wages (particularly for high educated individuals).” – Erik Hurst

“Time has the quality of pace as well as duration. The pace of life has accelerated, as efficiency has become the number-one value of the U.S. – it’s almost number one in Canada, but things are a bit slower there. … Efficiency and the open-ended materialism and greed that characterize our culture combine to make time seem scarce. And the desire to increase the marginal utility on time means that all human activity is sped up. Activities that can't be sped up decline in popularity. Almost all sports, for example, have been sped up – or attempts are being made to do so.” – Geoffrey Godbey, Professor Emeritus, Penn State University

If you personally had more leisure, what would you use it for?

“I’ve specifically chosen a career that allows for flexibility. However, like most others, I feel both internal and external pressure to work harder, faster, longer. The flexibility of my job really means I never get away from work – if I am on vacation, work often comes with me. I have to make a conscious effort to protect my leisure time. If I was independently wealthy, I’d travel to exotic places, read, kayak, and spend time with friends and family – all things I currently do, but would really like to do for longer periods of time or more often.” – Amanda Johnson

“I’m an academic. What do you think? I would read more.” – June Cotte

“My devoted leisure is often spent with family and friends. I incorporate a lot of small trips, go to concerts and a few professional sports events. I watch television, volunteer for several organizations, and work full time. Many aspects of my workday result in a sense of leisure and well-being, in addition to a meaningful product. When I’m stressed or unhappy, I know I have not been investing in maintaining balance my life. That realization helps me re-think what I’ll do in the days or weeks to come to reverse the pattern. Perhaps leisure is more about taking control of one’s opportunities and less about a consistent time that may or may not result in pleasure. So what is measured often influences the results.” – Veda Ward

“If I had more leisure, I would read more novels.” – Nicole Fortin

“I’m 75 and working full time. That is in part due to fact that I like what I am doing and in part to not knowing what I would do if I had more leisure time.” – Chris Green

“A three-star lunch in Paris and other European travel.” – John Robinson

“Everyone always strictly prefers more money and more time. I would like more of both. But, as always, budget constraints always kick in. Holding my income constant, if I had more leisure,I’d spend more time with my kids.” – Eric Hurst

“The issue is not more leisure, but the configuration in which gains in leisure come. If it's an extra one-half hour a day, I’d probably watch more TV or read. If it's an extra three days, twice a year, I’d visit my daughter in Vancouver. If my sense of time slows down or disappears, I’d write more poetry or watch the slow, sweet arrival of darkness from my deck.” – Geoffrey Godbey

“There's some great research on subjective well-being that suggests it's not things that make us happy, but experiences. Many of these experiences occur during our leisure. Some of the best leisure experiences I've had have been travelling with my wife. Put the two of us in a canoe in a national park or wilderness area – leave our laptops, smartphones, and even wristwatches behind and, as one of my students once put it, we will once again experience our lives in colour, rather than the black-and-white of everyday life.” – Gordon Walker

“I’m an occupational devotee. I love what I do. I’m not quitting until my mind runs out. Mainly I write. That is my leisure, though I also play music and mountain scramble.” – Robert Stebbins

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