What is life all about? An idea of what it’s not: a 40-hour work week until you’re dead.
Nearly 100 years ago, John Maynard Keynes recognized the possibility of a world so prosperous we would permanently solve all of humanity’s basic needs: food, shelter, and health, and it would require working no more than, say, 15 hours per week. Humanity, from that point forward, would usher in a new era of “living wisely and agreeably and well.” In other words, we would finally escape our need to expend most of our energy merely surviving – we would be freed to allocate our precious time toward virtue. The bad news: none of the conditions for his vision held true. We are not working 15 hour weeks. The good news: we should remain hopeful about the circumstances that led to his dream – they are still with us. We should appreciate, that just because we are living in the age of science, and technology, and the internet, the wisest human questions about how to live a good life have been around much much longer, in the minds of people like Keynes. These questions are still sitting there, waiting to be explored, for the benefit of all of us.
Keynes’s essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, is an easy six page read.
A Brief Analysis
1) Humans have two classes of needs. 1- “Absolute Needs” food, shelter, health, and 2- “Relative Needs” – superficial things that make us feel good.
“Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes –those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs-a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.”
2) Until the early 1900s, the biggest problem facing mankind was the “Absolute Needs” – our perpetual struggle to survive.
“If we look into the past-we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race-not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms.”
3) Given technological progress and abundance, the problem of “Absolute Needs” may be permanently solved.
“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem [of Absolute Needs] may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race.”
4) It will be tough for society to readjust and embrace this free time – we are so used to toiling away to survive, as a way of life.
“Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.
Thus 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, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
5) We must be careful not to squander privilege and abundance, like the wealthy elites of that era.
“To judge from the behavior and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.”
6) A vision for a better way.
“I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.
For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!
We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.
I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.“
7) This vision can come to fruition, if only…
“The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things-our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.”
What Happened Since 1930?
I am neither historian nor economist. But as a participant in society in 2021, it is irrefutable to state: we have lost trust in science, our population is rising, the world has seen consistent war and conflict, and there is extreme disparity in how wealth has accumulated throughout the global population. These are the conditions Keynes proposed for his global economic freedom to come true – and we’ve struck-out on all of them (so far).
None of us, individually, can fix this. None of us can curb the insatiable appetite for money and things, on a broad scale.
But…. but! We can apply these ideas in our personal lives. We can recognize we do live in a world of extreme abundance. If one really pays attention, it’s hard to not to see our baseline conditions completely miraculous. We can walk into any grocery store and buy some food for good value. We can access the internet and the words knowledge. In modern western society, we are so, so wealthy and fortunate, in regard to the simple things in life. Do we really need to crave so much more?
Has the 40-Hour Week Ever Felt Excessive?
Have you ever, even briefly, wondered this? If there is any value to this essay – it’s that you now know you have famous company. This yearning to allocate more time toward “leisure”, which in the Keynesian sense means to live wisely, agreeably, and well, outside of work, has been kicking around for at least 100 years.
We do not have to accept a 9-to-5, 40 hour per week, till age 65 lifestyle. This is perhaps one of the most powerful current-value aspects of Keynes’s essay. It is proof to all of us, that humanity has been picking at this nagging question for some time. This should inspire us to continue dreaming of something better. The definition of humanity should not be to spend our lives working, have fun on weekends, and die.
Understand the Main Reason Why You Work
I firmly believe we all need a purpose in life. We need to feel challenged. We need to grow. We need a community. But the distinction I will make, is that one should not source these things solely from their job. It’s fine, to an extent, but it should not be the only place one obtains these things. Passions and hobbies and relationships and giving back to the world should be a deep part of life outside the workplace.
At the end of the day – the fundamental reason one works is not any of those things. The main reason you work is to provide. To bring home money so you can put food in your belly and put a roof over your head. “Absolute Needs” – in Keynes’s words. Any other deeper meaning or desires we project onto our jobs beyond this should be questioned very carefully. The risk of imbuing your career with extra significance – of considering it a major component of your identity, is that you may work and work and work, all the way through old age and retirement, and realize your entire life has passed you by.
Get-off, Stay-off, the Hedonic Treadmill
You can’t change the world. But you can realize that all you need to be happy is food, health, and shelter. Beyond that, add in some nourishing habits, and warm relationships with people you love. With these things – you may as well be the richest person in the universe. This was true long before Keynes, it was true in 1930, and it is true today.
Society may entice everyone to crave things endlessly, and work like complete idiots to fulfill those cravings. But we can choose not to go along for the ride. Because it never ends.
It’s not to suggest one should avoid work entirely, or somehow escape this. We all need to contribute somehow. We all benefit from society and we all need to pay it back. But we don’t have to get lost in the process, crushing our souls in pursuit of money and material things. We can save, take part time jobs, retire early, explore various other ways to live.
Maybe, someday, Keynes’s prophecy will come true. Maybe someday, society will encourage everyone to live minimally, share abundance, and take care of everyone. And no – this is not a subtle Marxist pitch. Keynes’s view was that capitalism ought to be carefully governed and I agree these. Political and market philosophies are an entire topic on their own…
Until the day of true shared abundance and wisdom is realized, you can choose to focus on the simple things that are important to you. You can choose to curb cravings that really add nothing to you life. You may have a chance to realize your own little version of Keynes’s dream. To work for only what you need and live meaningfully and well in your leisure time.
“Hard work for long hours can help a person buy lots of stuff, or careful spending decisions can help a person have lots of leisure. The choices is for each individual to make.”
– ,Bill Conerly, reflecting on Keynes’s essay in 2020