What Happened to the 15-Hour Workweek?

Almost a century ago in 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the 21st century, we would grow so wealthy that we would only need to work 15 hours a week.

Keynes was half-right. We did grow wealthy—even wealthier than he predicted. GDP per capita is four times what it was in Keynes’s time.

Yet, Keynes was also half-wrong. We aren’t working 15-hour weeks. Weekly work hours in the United States have hardly budged from the average of 48 hours in Keynes’ time.

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What’s more, the rich—who should have the most time for leisure—are working harder than ever. What happened? Why did Keynes’s prediction fail? Why aren’t we all, in the Western world at least, working 15-hour weeks?

These are hotly debated questions, and I won’t try to give a complete answer here. Instead, I’d like to use these questions to reveal something interesting about human nature, the good life, and the ways we relate to money.

Beyond the Horizon

Robert Skidelsky—the celebrated biographer of Keynes—asks these same questions in his book How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. Robert wrote the book together with his son, Edward, who is a professional philosopher.

The Skidelskys argue that Keynes made the mistake of thinking that human wants are finite:

[Keynes] failed to distinguish wants from needs; in fact, he used the two terms interchangeably throughout his essay. … Needs—the objective requirements of a good and comfortable life—are finite in quantity, but wants, being purely psychic, are infinitely expandable, as to both quantity and quality.

Keynes thought that, as we got richer, each additional unit of money would be less and less valuable us, until we reached a point where it wouldn’t make sense to pursue more:

[Keynes] believed that [we] would one day be fully satisfied, leaving us free for “higher things.” We now know better. Experience has taught us that material wants know no natural bounds, that they will expand without end unless we consciously restrain them. Capitalism rests precisely on this endless expansion of wants. … It has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough.

It is unfair, I think, to blame capitalism for destroying “the consciousness of having enough.” Evolutionary theory has taught us that all living creatures have a natural drive to survive and reproduce. The endless pursuit of more part of human nature, not the result of a capitalist society.

Still, it does seem possible that life in a hyper-capitalist society might make our natural desires even worse. How might capitalism lead to an “endless expansion of wants”?

I Want What You Want

Well, one explanation is that there are simply more things to want. A supermarket today has thousands of options to choose from, and there will always be more things than we can afford.

Advertising—which appears on billboards, in trains and trams, on our smartphone screens, or cleverly disguised as a “blog post”—is now impossible to escape from, and it exposes us to a never-ending stream of products that we didn’t know we needed.

These are well-known complaints. However, there’s another important and poorly-understood reason for want-expansion. Keynes thought that, once our needs were fulfilled, it wouldn’t make sense to work more. However, it turns out that there is a certain need that requires an infinite supply of money to satisfy.

This need is the need for social status.

Ripped Jeans and the Short-Short Skirt Problem

As a teenager, I remember desperately trying to convince my mother to buy me a pair of ripped jeans.

“Why?” she asked. “It’s December and it’s cold. Why do you want pants with holes?!  They cost forty dollars! It makes no sense.”

What my mother didn’t understand was something that I couldn’t put into words at the time. What matters to a teenager is not how functional or warm a pair of pants is. What matters is whether you’re “in” or you’re “out.”

For me, ripped jeans were the dividing line that separated the worthy from the unworthy, the cool kids from the losers. Having ripped jeans was a status symbol, and teenagers instinctively how important status is for getting through school unbullied and unharmed.

Though we rarely admit it, status is just as important for adults. In fact, status-driven spending, say the Skidelskys, is precisely what Keynes failed to consider. Once our ordinary needs are met, most of our money goes towards inflating our status:

Above a certain economic level, the bulk of income is spent on items that are not needed in any absolute sense but rather serve to mark out their possessors as superior, or at least not inferior, to others.

The official term for this is conspicuous consumption, and I’ve touched on it in a previous essay on the fundamental consumerist delusion.

The Short Skirt Problem.

Although it’s not too hard to understand how status competition leads to some increase in spending, it might not be clear why it can lead to an endless increase.

One way to understand is what I call the short skirt problem.

Here in Japan, I live next to a high school. As some of you know, Japanese students wear uniforms. So here’s something that puzzled me for a long time. It’s December and very cold here, but all the students wear short skirts.

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Yes, they’re this short. Even when it’s snowing outside.

At first, I thought this was a policy instated by some perverted Head Teacher, but that’s not the case. Japanese skirts are supposed to be worn past the knees. Instead, the girls purposely roll up their skirts to shorten them. Why? Here’s my theory: Because a short skirts are to them what ripped jeans were to me.

To roll down your skirt in the winter time, no matter how cold it is, is to announce, “I’m a loser!” Which, of course, means sayonara to your friends and hello to a world of ostracism and bullying. As they say in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Luckily (or unluckily, if you’re a Head Teacher), skirts can only get so short. But, when it comes to spending, there’s no natural limit. If my peers are earning $100,000 a year, then I want to earn $200,000. If they’re earning several million, then I want to go for a billion. No matter how rich you get, there’s room to spend and consume more.

Put in economic language, status signaling through consumption is a positional good. It doesn’t matter that we’re richer than in 1930. What matters is where I stand on the economic hierarchy, and that means spending more and more to keep myself there.

Here’s the (hilarious) advertising legend Rory Sutherland writing about the same idea, in the context of cheese:

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but middle-class rules now require that every dinner party cheeseboard must contain at least two cheeses which aren’t very nice. … I was baffled by this for a long time, until I realised that these cheeses are not bought to be eaten, but to signal the sophistication of the occasion. **There are many forms of consumption today where — dress it up all you like — it is obvious the main value lies not in the intrinsic value of the thing itself but in signalling the refinement of your taste.** This increasingly creates a kind of feedback loop where people are driven to absurd lengths to gain competitive bragging rights.”

There are all sorts of examples of how status competition makes things uglier and more wasteful than they could be—political elections, modernist architecture and ridiculously long wine glass stems come to mind.

Add in globalization and things get even worse. Now, instead of being a moderately-handsome member of your mountain village, you’re uglier than every single K-Pop idol that appears on the TV screen. Now, none of the village ladies will even look at you.

The Crux of Culture

Another interesting factor to consider here is culture. Work hours vary quite a bit, even among countries that have similar levels of wealth. For example, Americans work an average of 400 more hours a year than Germans do.

Why might this happen? The Skidelskys suggest that culture is a big part of this difference:

“In an immigrant society like America, money-making was seen as the royal road to success; in Europe, the legacy of a hierarchical culture that limited opportunities for money-making both at the top and the bottom led to the adoption of ways of life that downgraded money-making as a goal.”

This makes me wonder if the American dream-ideology of “you can achieve whatever you want as long as you try” may have the side effect of making Americans work a lot harder.

This certainly happened to me. At one point, I was so obsessed with “becoming a millionaire before 30” that I refused to do anything but work all day, every day. If you asked me, “Why do you want to become rich?” I would mumble something about not having to work for the rest of my life. In retrospect, that wasn’t the real reason—the real reason, I think, was ripped-jeans syndrome.

Anyway, the Skidelskys argue that, in the past, cultural norms, traditions, and religious beliefs limited this “endless expansion of wants.” In Edo Japan, for example, merchants were considered the lowliest class. Religions almost universally criticized the endless pursuit of wealth. Morality and tradition served as a counterbalance to the pursuit of self-interest.

In contrast, modern life has removed this counterbalance. In fact, modern economic and political theory—in an attempt to remain “neutral”—tries to avoid talking about morality at all. Since “How much spending is too much?” is a moral question, what this means is that we’ve shot ourselves in the foot—ethical debate has been ejected from both economics and politics, to be replaced by a new ethic of “anything goes.”

(If you want to read more about this, see Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy.)

Now What?

If it’s true that most of our disposable income goes towards competitive consumption and status signaling, then consider this question: Is it possible to give up the status game and work less than 15 hours a week?

I’m lucky to be self-employed, and I decided to test this out for myself. For the last two months, I’ve tried to only do “real work” for one or two days each week. The rest of my time I spend reading dystopian novels (J. G. Ballard lately), thinking about political philosophy, listening to podcasts, and losing to my wife at Mario Kart.

So far, neither my (small) business nor my financial affairs have fallen apart. What I realized was that a lot of my so-called “work” in the past was fake—I got nothing done and simply sat at the computer because I thought I should be working.

Since becoming aware of how much of our energy goes into playing and winning the status game, I’ve decided that life is a lot more enjoyable when I choose not to play. These days, I live quietly, read books, and avoid people who talk about things like getting rich, becoming successful, or leaving a legacy. So far, no high school girls have come around to bully me.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone only work two days a week. Most bosses would never accept that. But I do think that most people don’t realize how much of their time (and therefore their lives) is driven by status considerations.

So I think it’s worth asking the following question: “How much of what I do is done because I care about status? And how could my life be different if I care a little bit less?”

P.S. If you want to read more on the subject, some books that influenced me are philosopher Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, and playwright Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theater have taught me what a big role status relationships play in the decisions that we make. (Johnstone goes as far as to say that understanding status relationships is the most important thing for good acting and good comedy.)