Capital Ideas Blog

Keynes's 15-hour workweek, revisited

By Chelsea Vail
August 29, 2014

From: Blog


US workers put in an average of 7.6 hours on the days they worked in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey. This is several time clock punches apart from the 15-hour workweek predicted by John Maynard Keynes in 1930—and it seems we may be forgoing leisure time unnecessarily, and at the expense of our own happiness. 

Keynes was certainly wrong about the workweek, but he hit on a related issue that only recently has become the subject of further study. In his imagined world of leisurely pursuits, with only the barest minimum of work to do, he conceded that some people will work and earn until feeling tired rather than until having enough.

“Of course there will still be people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth—unless they can find some plausible substitute,” he wrote in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”  

These days, we have a more specific name for the phenomenon—“overearning,” as described by Chicago Booth’s Christopher K. Hsee and his coauthors in a paper of the same name (and explained by Chicago Booth’s Dave Nussbaum in “Why you’re working too hard,” in the Fall 2013 issue of Capital Ideas). Overearning, the researchers found, is the result of mindless accumulation (a concept neatly summed up by “too much is never enough”), and something which people do even at the cost of happiness.

But—there is hope! The researchers also found that “prompting individuals to consider the consequences of their earnings or denying them excessive earnings can disrupt mindless accumulation and enhance happiness.”

This Labor Day, take some time to think about your own work habits. Perhaps there is something to Keynes’s 15-hour workweek, after all.

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