During the mid-20th century growth explosion, leading economic experts, including John Maynard Keynes, sought to predict what the trend might mean for the West’s working future — the future in which we are now living. Keynes posited, roughly, that if economic productivity continued its upward trend, working hours would also trend downward. In the future, the average worker would spend a handful of hours a week at his or her job, spending the rest at leisure.
While productivity is higher, this latter point is clearly not the case. A new paper by Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman investigates why working hours in the United States haven’t followed their predicted path — after a dip starting in the 1930’s, working hours haven’t budged since the ’70’s — and his theory might have interesting reflections on workplace happiness.
Friedman refutes the idea that today’s humans are more materialistic, and work more to earn money for what they want next. He also complicates the hypothesis that, in today’s hyper-compartmentalized world, workers are more invested in the social relationships they have at work.
What he does find compelling is the increasing gap in equality in workers, and theorizes that most Americans spend more time at work not because they want to, but because they can’t afford not to. Wages have not kept pace with increased productivity, leaving many folks at the lower rungs of industry working as many hours as they can.
But what of the other end of that inequality spectrum — the, dare I say, 1%? Why are they spending long hours at work to, when they don’t have to?
“ [Friedman] theorized that for many top earners, work is a labor of love. They are doing work they care about and are interested in, and doing more of it isn’t such a burden—it may even be a pleasure. They derive meaning from their jobs, and it is an important part of how they think of themselves. And, of course, they are compensated for it at a level that makes it worth their while.”
So, for the majority of American workers, personal economic necessity pushes workplace happiness off the list of priorities. And for “top earners,” happiness is a motivator because the possibility of it exists for them. Keynes’ vision of productivity has come essentially true, but in practice it is skewed by inequality. The process of righting that imbalance should be an interesting one to watch.