Tim Wu wrote an interesting article about work for The New Yorker questioning the notion that Americans need to work the hours they typically do.
What all of these explanations have in common is the idea that the answer comes from examining workers’ decisions and incentives. There’s something missing: the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it.… in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.
This rings true to me. As the article points out, early economists feared that with gains in efficiency we would face an “epidemic of too much leisure time.” However, what has become clear is that even as our tasks become more efficient there is always more that could be done, so we just add more tasks on top. To step off this treadmill is to be at a competitive disadvantage. The length of the work week may stay where it is, it may grow, but it is unlikely to ever decrease.
I’m of the opinion that replacing half of everyone’s work week with leisure time would, in fact, cause an “epidemic of too much leisure time”. Having said that, I am also of the opinion that, if a living wage could be gained with 20–30 hours of work per week, new found free time would not be filled with leisure.
What would you do with 10–20 more hours a week of free time? You would probably start by enjoying entertainment, exercise, and travel. However, I suspect this would soon become tiresome for many people. I think humans are meant to dedicate themselves to things they care about.
In the end, you might start a side business, dedicate significant time to a cause, become more interested and involved in your community or church, pursue more education, repair strained relationships, or some other worthy pursuit. The fact that our society lumps these essential aspects of life dismissively into “leisure time” says a lot about our priorities. We prioritize serving a single patron and, consequently, the economy above all else.
In my mind the question is not whether people should be working 40 hours a week or 80. It’s whether all those hours should be dedicated to one thing, leaving all other pursuits fighting for scraps.