Writing in the 1930s economist John Maynard Keynes predicted at at the “time of our grandchildren” (figurative term since he himself had no kids) people would live a life of leisure and work for an average of fifteen hours a week. Yet, it’s been eighty years since and we still slog away, putting in anywhere between forty and sixty hours a week as we earn our living. And it doesn’t look like things are going to change soon
So why did this happen? I propose two reasons. When I quit my first job almost eight years ago within three months of joining I complained that the workload was way too high. I added that I didn’t need all the money that job paid me and wouldn’t mind taking up something that paid half the money and where I had to work only half the time. No such thing materialized and I slogged away, before going freelance two years back.
Now why does this little anecdote matter? I’m using this to show that the returns to work are not linear. If you were to plot the number of hours worked per week on the x axis and the total value added on the y axis you are likely to get a convex function. In other words the marginal benefit out of every additional hour you work per week is an increasing function of how much you’ve already worked.
The question is why this is so. One simple answer is that in jobs with a high degree of learning by working longer you end up learning faster. Then within the job you can have network effects where the work you do in one part of the job can help you do another part better (I constantly see this in my freelancing where I work on several projects at a time). If there is a steep learning curve it is easier for the firm to appoint one worker to work sixty hours a week than two to work thirty each – since the starting costs get saved. And so forth.
So this increasing returns to effort (in terms of the hours worked) is that the trade off between work and leisure gets resolved in favour of leisure only at a very high level of work – where you are working close to capacity and don’t want to risk burnout and want to maintain your sanity. Before that the increasing returns to effort means that you are likely to put off leisure in favour of “just a little more work”.
The question is if all jobs work this way, and why an economist as brilliant as Keynes didn’t see this concept of increasing returns to work. The answer is that increasing returns to work applies only to a certain kind of jobs – jobs that require a high level of skill and learning and which can be broadly classified as “knowledge jobs”.
Back in Keynes’s time such knowledge jobs were few – far fewer than they are today. Most workers were in jobs that didn’t require a high degree of skill or learning. In unskilled jobs or jobs that are physically demanding the expanding returns to effort part of the curve is extremely short. Once you have figured out the best way to bolt together two metal pieces doing more of this job is not going to make you much faster in bolting together two metal pieces.
Instead since it is physical after you’ve put in a certain number of hours in a day you begun to tire and become less efficient (notice this point occurs at a later stage for knowledge jobs). And the returns to hours curve starts flattening out much sooner. If you were to do the trade off with leisure using such a curve the equilibrium might occur much earlier than for knowledge work – perhaps at Keynes’s predicted value of fifteen hours per week.
Now even today while the proportion of non knowledge jobs is smaller than eighty years back the number of people doing such jobs is not small. So if the work-leisure equilibrium happens at fifteen hours a week why do people work longer?
The answer is that work-leisure is not the only equilibrium one is solving for. You also need to work enough to be able it fund your living. And it has happened that fifteen hours of non knowledge work pays nowhere close tO what is required to fund a reasonable living. For this reason non knowledge workers are forced to work much longer than their work-leisure equilibrium rule permits!
So why didn’t Keynes see this? I think what he missed was the boom in the knowledge economy in the postwar period. With the rise in the knowledge economy what you had was a set if jobs that had increasing returns to effort. Moreover these returns, on an hourly basis, were far larger than the returns on a non knowledge job. The boom in the knowledge economy meant that people working in such jobs impacted general prices and this forced the non knowledge workers to work longer!
So we have the unique situation now that those people who can afford to work for only fifteen hours a week have no incentive to do so. On the other hand people who have an incentive to work no more than fifteen hours a week are forced to work longer because otherwise they cannot find their lives!!