Many note the prediction by Keynes that working hours today would, or could, be much shorter than they were when he was writing. Some then go on to insist that we should change how we organise things so that they are. It's that latter that so annoys us, for a philosophical reason firstly and then for a technical one.
Had you asked John Maynard Keynes what the biggest challenge of the 21st century would be, he wouldn’t have had to think twice.
Leisure. In fact, Keynes anticipated that, barring “disastrous mistakes” by policymakers (austerity during an economic crisis, for instance), the western standard of living would multiply to at least four times that of 1930 within a century. By his calculations, in 2030 we’d be working just 15 hours a week.
In 2000, countries such as the UK and the US were already five times as wealthy as in 1930. Yet as we hurtle through the first decades of the 21st century, our biggest challenges are not too much leisure and boredom, but stress and uncertainty.
What does working less actually solve, I was asked recently. I’d rather turn the question around: is there anything that working less does not solve?
That philosophic objection first. For there is one thing that working less does not solve: what people want to do. Our job in the organisation of society is not to impose some order upon it, not to insist upon some right way of living which must be followed. It is, because we are liberals, to order matters so that every member of that society can live their lives, right up to the boundaries of where their doing so impinges upon the similar rights of others, as they wish. We should therefore be observing what people actually do in order to work out what they want to do.
Keynes was indeed correct that economic growth would make us all that much richer. But what we've found out over that period of time is that our hunger for more tchotchke is rather larger than Keynes thought it was. Ho hum, oh dear, we're still though trying to accommodate the wishes of the people, not impose our own visions upon them. Thus we cannot observe that people prefer to work more than Keynes said they might and then insist that they should work the shorter hours that Keynes was wrong about.
Which brings us to the technical matter:
The central issue is achieving a more equitable distribution of work. Not until men do their fair share of cooking, cleaning and other domestic labour will women be free to fully participate in the broader economy.
Even a brief look at the ONS statistics will show that labour is in fact pretty equally spread across gender lines these days. Adding household and market work together men and women do pretty similar amounts. As, in fact, they did back in Keynes' day. For the obvious reason that the total workload is going to be pretty evenly balanced in something as intimate as a marriage to run a household. What gets us very hot under the collar indeed is that near everyone opining on this matter misses the most important change over those decades. Household labour has declined as much as if not more than Keynes predicted.
This might be a little over cooking the numbers but we have seen claims that a household in 1930 required 60 hours of work a week to keep running. Just washing the clothes was in itself a full day's labour on its own. Today that number is perhaps more like 15 hours. For the household for the week, not the clothes washing.
That is, we have reduced our working hours as Keynes predicted. It's just that it was that traditionally female labour in the household that was reduced by that amount.
Another way to put this is that it's simply crazy to go around shouting that everyone should do less market work and help out more at home. We've a century of experience on this in many different countries. Near everyone wants to do it the other way around: kill off as much of that domestic work as possible with technology and go out to do the interesting market work to pay for it. And since we are liberals that's what we should be aiding them in achieving, their goal, right?