Undercover Economist

The rewards for working hard are too big for Keynes’s vision

The economist was right in that we are better off but at the cost of our free time

Working long hours pays off in monetary terms, but it means there is less time for pursuits

If John Maynard Keynes is looking down upon me now — he might make a good guardian angel for economists — then he is wondering why I am writing this column instead of lounging by the pool.

“Three hours a day is quite enough,” he pronounced in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. The essay offers two famous speculations: that people in 2030 will be eight times better off than people in 1930; and that as a result we will all be working 15-hour weeks and wondering how to fill our time.

Keynes was half right. Barring some catastrophe in the next 15 years, his rosy-seeming forecasts of global growth will be an underestimate. The three-hour workday, however, remains elusive. (Keynes was childless, but NPR’s Planet Money show recently tracked down his sister’s grandchildren and asked them if they were working just 15 hours a week. They were not.)

So where did Keynes go wrong? Two answers immediately spring to mind — one noble, and one less so. The noble answer is that we rather like some kinds of work. We enjoy spending time with our colleagues, intellectual stimulation or the feeling of a job well done. The ignoble answer is that we work hard because there is no end to our desire to outspend each other.

Keynes considered both of these possibilities, but perhaps he did not take them seriously enough. He would not have been able to anticipate more recent research suggesting that the experience of being unemployed is miserable out of all proportion to its direct effect on income.

Perhaps Keynes also failed to appreciate that there is more to keeping up with the Joneses than conspicuous consumption. We want to live in pleasant areas with good schools and easy access to dynamic employers. As a result, we find ourselves in ferocious competition for a limited supply of desirable houses.

There are subtler explanations for Keynes’s error. As the late Gary Becker observed in an essay with Luis Rayo, Keynes may have been led astray by contemplating the leisured elite of the 1920s. The income flowing to the “1 per cent” was not much different back then, but they owned much more of the wealth. A gentleman in 1920s Bloomsbury drawing income from capital was just as wealthy as a partner at a 21st-century New York law firm billing at a vast hourly rate. Yet it is no mystery that the gentleman spent his time at the club while the lawyer is working her socks off.

A few years ago, the economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst published a survey of how American work and leisure had evolved between 1965 and 2005. Both men and women had more leisure time — although nothing like as much as Keynes had expected. But some people defied this trend. The best educated and the highest earners, both men and women, had less free time than ever. Starting in the mid 1980s, this elite began to drop everything and work ­furiously.

Perhaps the real story, then, is that we are trying to keep up not with the Joneses but with our work colleagues. By pulling the longest hours and taking the least leave, we climb the corporate ladder. It may be no coincidence that the collapse in leisure time began in the 1980s, at a time when inequality at the top of that ladder was surging. The rewards for working hardest are large.

We are still 15 years away from the world that Keynes imagined. If we are to live up to his laid-back expectations, much will have to change. We’ll need plentiful access to nice schools and neighbourhoods, and less of a rat-race culture in the office.

That sounds welcome. But perhaps the fundamental truth is that many of us enjoy working hard on something that feels worthwhile, or aspire to such work. John Maynard Keynes was a wealthy man, but that did not stop him working himself to death.

Written for and first published at ft.com.