Here’s an interesting book review in New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert regarding Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It turned out that Keynes was remarkably prescient regarding the economic growth that would result from technological progress, but he predicted that people would work fewer hours per week, not grow in their greed for consumption to match economic growth.
I read this New Yorker piece during the same week that I saw Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (my review) and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Both the 1610 play and the 2013 movie take the position that if you are rich you’ll become a fat target for thieves and grifters and that even blood relation/family feeling is not nearly as powerful as greed. If reasonably comfortable people are willing to cheat and even kill for greater wealth, why wouldn’t they be willing to work longer hours?
At the same time, it does seem odd that people work so hard. My parents were Harvard graduates and my father had a great job with the Federal Trade Commission. The five of us shared a 1500 square foot house in Bethesda, Maryland with a black and white TV. My dad rode the Metrobus to work. Mom drove a dark green 1970 Chevrolet station wagon with black vinyl seats and no air-conditioning that broke down on the New Jersey turnpike every few trips to see the cousins. Putting a kid wearing shorts into the car on an August afternoon was bona fide child abuse that could result in first degree leg burns. (Note to youngsters reading this blog: the car did not break down due to advanced age; even fairly new cars in the old days were not as reliable as a 12-year-old Honda Accord would be today.) We attended public school and read books from the library. Our cavities were filled by a dentist who didn’t use novacaine for pediatric patients because it was too expensive and time-consuming. Kids in our (prosperous) neighborhood generally took between 0 and 2 commercial airline flights through high school graduation. We all shared a rotary-dial telephone. I don’t remember any family discussions over why my Dad didn’t take a second job or my Mom a full-time job so that we could have fancier stuff, a bigger house, or elaborate vacations like the lobbyists took their families on (even then lobbying the government was a great way to make money for all concerned!).
The material lifestyle that we had back in the 1970s could be achieved today with either zero work (i.e., collecting welfare of one sort or another), by reasonably skilled individuals with the 15 hour/week schedule that Keynes envisioned as becoming typical, or with the profits from a one-night encounter that produced a child (top of the Massachusetts child support guidelines is over $40,000 per year for a single child, i.e., more than the median after-tax household income in the state). Yet how many content themselves with what today we would call “the simplest life” and that back in the 1970s we called “the good life”? Welfare recipients, perhaps responding to “the welfare cliff”, tend not to pursue jobs that would reduce their benefits, but they often work for cash. People who get high hourly wages 15 hours per week find it tempting to take on an additional project and work 25 or 40 hours per week. According to their attorneys, at least, people who have found it profitable to collect child support on one child oftentimes have second and third children with additional co-parents, thus increasing their income (in New York and Texas, for example, it is exactly twice as profitable to have three kids with three different co-parents than to have three kids with the same co-parent; in Massachusetts, three kids with the same $250,000/year co-parent would yield child support of $55,390, but three kids with three $250,000/year co-parents would yield a tax-free revenue stream of $120,413, i.e., more than twice as profitable).
I don’t think it is reasonable to blame technological progress for our lack of contentment, as Kolbert does to some extent. The computer applications that people love the most (Web, Facebook, Gmail, etc.) are free and run on ridiculously cheap hardware. A reasonably good smartphone voice+data connection can be obtained for about $40 per month. The stuff that seems to have Americans spinning on the rat wheel is non-technological, e.g., a McMansion and the energy to heat/cool it, a monster SUV or pickup truck for day-to-day transportation instead of a car, a cruise around the Caribbean, etc.
If I had to pick one factor I think it is population growth. This has been a boon to politicians anxious to collect as much tax revenue as possible, but a bane to the would-be-slacker citizen. In the 1970s the roads weren’t nearly as clogged so you didn’t spend so many extra hours in a car essentially parked in the middle of the road relying on the air-conditioning for a breeze and the audio system for entertainment. In the 1970s there were fewer people demanding theater tickets, rides at Disneyland, sporting event seats, etc. Therefore you didn’t need to work 60 hours per week to earn enough to seat a family of 5 at a professional baseball or football game (and parking was a lot cheaper because there were fewer cars competing for the same real estate).
But could it be that the answer is as simple as “Why didn’t Keynes remember his Shakespeare?”
More: Read the New Yorker.