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In a famous 1930 essay titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes, arguably the greatest economist of the 20th century, predicted that a hundred years later, people would be earning far more while working far less than they did then. Writing in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, the essay struck a surprisingly optimistic tone, envisioning a society in which human beings would free themselves of both want and work.

One must not be disheartened by the events of the day, Keynes argued in the essay, as the economic downturn was temporary. The march of technical progress would continue apace and lead to a phenomenal rise in automation and productivity, allowing everyone to meet their basic needs and freeing people from the drudgery of work. Keynes imagined three-hour shifts or a 15-hour week to become the norm in the 21st century.

“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem (of meeting basic needs for all) may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years," wrote Keynes. He went on to add that “for the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well".

Keynes was right about many things in the essay: about productivity growth, increasing automation and decline in poverty levels across the world. But he seems to have been wide off the mark about the workweek. The average workday did decline in the post-war period, albeit slowly, but the decline seems to have stopped around the 1970s. Despite the increase in automation and the computerization of many routine tasks, long work hours have become entrenched in most modern corporations around the world.

Why has history been unkind to Keynes’s prediction about work and leisure? Do we all put in equally long hours? What are the causes and consequences of long working hours?

Recent data on how we spend our times and old insights on human behaviour may help throw some light on these questions.

As with everything else, the burden of work does not fall equally on everyone. There are significant inequalities in how much people work and how much they enjoy leisure depending on where they live and which class and gender they belong to.

For a long time, many development economists have claimed that poor economies suffer from low productivity because people work for fewer hours in those countries. Some came up with geography-based reasons (tropical climates make hard work difficult) to explain these differences. But a new global database on work hours, which makes several adjustments for differences in time-use surveys across countries, suggests that our notions of work and productivity differences may be flawed.

Research by economists Alexander Bick, Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln and David Lagakos, who compiled the globally comparable database of average working hours, shows that people in poorer countries work much longer on average than those in rich countries. Their analysis shows that hours worked per adult are about 50% higher in poor countries than in rich countries.

The productivity of those in poorer countries is lower despite working more and not because they work fewer hours, the researchers argue. Given that these findings are based on a “core" set of 43 countries, for which high-quality time-use data was available, it is possible that the actual difference between rich and poor countries may be lower once all countries of the world are taken into account.

Nonetheless, the very fact that people in poorer countries work more on average than those in richer ones in the sample of countries studied should dispel notions about poorer countries working less than richer ones.

Bick and his co-authors also point to data showing that people in poorer countries spend more time working on home-related chores than in richer countries. This may be because the former lot tend to have fewer time-saving consumer durables, and also tend to have more children. As their average hours worked at both home and at worksites tend to be higher, their time for leisure is much lower than what the average person enjoys in advanced economies. The people in poorer countries are thus both “consumption poor" and “leisure poor".

There is a similar inequality in the distribution of leisure even within countries, with women of working age enjoying far less of it than men. As American economist and polymath Tyler Cowen pointed out in a New York Times article, the increase in average leisure time in advanced economies such as the US has not been because of a shrinking workweek but chiefly because of the mechanization of household chores, greater unemployment and early retirement norms. But the burden on women has increased.

“Women, of course, were barred from many jobs in the past," wrote Cowen. “With many workplace barriers falling, unequal bargaining power within families remains a problem for some women, who end up with a work-leisure balance that is not what they would ideally choose."

Among American men who were employed, the share of those working more than 50 hours per week began to increase around 1970, according to research by Peter Kuhn of the University of California, Santa Barbara. This trend has been especially pronounced among “highly educated, high-wage, salaried, and older men", Kuhn wrote in a 2006 research paper. Economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst reported similar results showing that the better educated and better earners enjoyed less leisure compared to the past.

According to scholars, a combination of factors may have resulted in diminished leisure time for workers, especially those belonging to the middle and top income deciles, since the 1970s. We know from the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and other scholars that income inequality has been rising, especially in the developed world, since the 1970s.

One of the most powerful explanations of the phenomenon came in an early paper by Sherwin Rosen published in 1981 that bore the title The Economics of Superstars. Rosen argued that new technologies allow the best to capture most of the returns in an industry. The most obvious examples are in creative pursuits such as film, music or sports where the superstars dominate. But this was increasingly applicable to a broader range of work, Rosen argued, and therefore the new global economy was delivering disproportionately high rewards to a small club of winners.

This theory may help explain why more and more people felt compelled to put in more hours at work in order to become one of the few superstars of the new economy. But it also suggests that in an unequal world with greater uncertainty about future incomes, people may be more easily persuaded to work longer than before. Given that the power of trade unions diminished considerably across the world and labour regulations have been loosened in many parts of the world since the 1970s, there was no countervailing force that could prevent an expanding workday.

The third factor may be increasing competitive pressures in the workplace caused by threats of redundancy either because of economic pressures (threats of takeovers, or closures or restructuring) or technological change. Such an environment may create a culture of “presentism" in the words of Ruth Simpson, professor of management at the London-based Brunel Business School.

Simpson defines presentism as the tendency to stay at work beyond the time needed for effective performance of the job. Such a tendency is born out of a fear of redundancy and uncertain promotion opportunities, and leads to a need to demonstrate visible commitment.

In jobs where it is difficult to measure the performance of individual employees accurately, presence itself becomes a signal of commitment and performance. This tendency tends to be particularly detrimental to women as they attempt to meet the conflicting demands of work and home, Simpson argued in a 1998 research paper.

The dominance of men in most organizations tends to perpetuate such a culture, Simpson wrote. Long hours act as the biggest career barrier for women, according to Simpson, an argument also made by award-winning Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin in her writings. Goldin argues that the non-linearity of earnings is a powerful economic reason why the long hour culture persists.

A fourth factor for the lengthening workday may have to do with the nature of work and our changing conception of work itself.

In his classic 1889 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, economist Thorstein Veblen famously sketched a class of elites that prized leisure over work, and “exploit" over “industry". While routine tasks (industry) were associated with lower classes and women, upper-class males preferred to engage in exploits, be it the pursuit of politics or gambling, which did not offer monetary rewards but gave the pursuer a thrill in confronting a knotty problem or in battling tough opponents.

In an interesting 2005 research paper, economic sociologist Jonathan Gershuny of the University of Oxford argued that while Veblen’s basic idea about status being defined in terms of daily activity was still valid, the link between leisure and status had been inverted over the past century. If Veblen’s Victorian era, elites prized “leisureliness" as a “badge of honour", the elites of the 21st century prized “busyness as a badge of honour".

Three related trends contributed to this reversal according to Gershuny. Firstly, exploits are no longer the exclusive domain of amateurs, they have become intrinsic parts of the lives of professionals. Many of today’s exploits, whether they be setting up a start-up or launching a channel on YouTube, tend to be both intrinsically and financially rewarding, and are conceived as work.

Secondly, changes in the economy and technological changes have created a new economy in which top earners and the middle classes are dependent more on human capital than on fixed capital for their incomes.

This is related to the third change: increased life expectancy has meant that people are living much longer than earlier, and hence are able to pass on their savings to their children at a much later age. What they can do is to invest in the human capital of their children, so that they are able to derive income based on that capital in the economy. But given that human capital only produces income to the extent that its possessors allocate their own time to paid work, it means that the new elites end up working far longer than those of yore.

In doing so, the most privileged end up working more than the less privileged, and “busyness" becomes a “signifier of high social status".

Another key factor that has changed the conception of work and strengthened our attachment to it may have to do with what has been going on outside our work lives. Without a community or a religious group or a social organization to anchor our roots, the global middle class has preferred to drop anchor in offices. American political scientist Robert Putnam expounded this idea in his 2000 book Bowling Alone on the decline of social capital in the US. Putnam noted that many Americans derived their sense of self from their work rather than their church or club or pastime.

Finally, in some cases, the drive to immerse oneself in work may have psychological roots. A recent study by psychologists Cecilie Schou Andreassen, Mark D. Griffiths, Rajita Sinha, Jørn Hetland, and Ståle Pallesen suggests that workaholism may be related to psychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The changing nature of jobs has meant that drudgery in certain jobs have given way to a sense of “exploit". But the impact of these changes has not always been benign, especially when long hours are more of a compulsion rather than a matter of choice for employees. As already discussed, the changes have been detrimental to the careers of women. They have also harmed the physical and mental health of both men and women, according to a growing body of research conducted by health researchers on the effects of the long-hour culture.

A 2006 study by A. Dembe of the Center for Health Policy and Research, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and his co-authors found that the risk of injuries increased with the number of hours worked. “... working in jobs with overtime schedules was associated with a 61% higher injury hazard rate compared to jobs without overtime," they wrote. “Working at least 12 hours per day was associated with a 37% increased hazard rate and working at least 60 hours per week was associated with a 23% increased hazard rate."

The stress affecting employees working in organizations with a culture of overwork has sprouted an industry of wellness experts, who are hired by such firms to manage the devastating impact of such a culture. But as Zoe Krupka, a researcher at the Faculty of Health Sciences, La Trobe University, points out, such an industry is incapable of offering solutions as it supports and is supported by a culture of overwork.

Many employees struggling to keep up with a lengthening workday seem to have decided to strike back at their employers, albeit surreptitiously. Workers stuck in the nine-to-seven routine often take time out for their private work, participating in events such as big online sales from their offices, a US survey showed.

This sort of private revenge against slightly archaic and highly patriarchal HR norms seems to be finding favour in India as well. A recent post published by the new publishing house Juggernaut showed that most users read books on its app between noon and 4pm. Given that the readers must be relatively well-educated as well as relatively well-off, it is perhaps safe to assume that many of them would be regular office-goers who like to take a post-noon break from the shackles of work and escape the drudgery of the office routine, even if virtually.

As economies such as Sweden shift to a six-hour workday and new-age companies take inspiration from it, it is possible that the popularity of a shorter workday will grow, and it will be “cool" to work for shorter but more productive hours. Maybe busyness will cease to be valued one day.

Till that day of revolution arrives, sit back on your swivel chair, and enjoy your afternoon read!

Economics Express runs weekly, and features interesting reads from the world of economics and finance.

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