One of the first economists to foresee the possibility of a world with (much) less work was John Maynard Keynes. In 1930 one of his Essays in Persuasion was entitled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. In it he imagined what we might reasonably expect from a possible economy a hundred years later, in 2030. He writes of what he calls “technological unemployment”, which he defines as “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.” In the previous paragraph he says, “In quite a few years – in our own lifetimes I mean – we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.”

This house is at most half an hour's walk from where I live. It was almost certainly occupied when Keynes wrote his famous essay. Who lived here? What did they do for a living? What children were born here? Who died here? When and how did it fall into ruin? As L.P. Hartley said, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there".

Probably, in rich countries, the effort of manufacture, mining and above all agriculture has been reduced to much less than a quarter today. In the French village in which I live, all farms were worked with beasts until well after the Second World War: the first tractor arrived in 1948. Now, many houses and indeed whole hamlets lie in ruins, and in the village itself, to quote the estimate of the local gendarmerie, one third of the houses are occupied all year round, as mine is; one third are holiday homes, mostly for rich Parisians (though we also have English and even Canadians); and one third are for sale, or falling down, or both.

Keynes reckoned that even in a world of infinite plenty, many would still regard work as something everyone needs to do. He may have been right. He added, however, that three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week would take care of this: “For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!” 

Now, getting on for 90 years after he wrote that essay, it seems that this was not the path we chose; or at least, it was not the path that was chosen by those who want to rule over us, or those who want to sell us things. The former are obsessed with dividing us into “strivers and shirkers”, without for one moment paying attention to the vast majority of people who want a quiet life, with an adequate standard of living, without having to spend rather over half of every week on either working, or getting to and from work. We allow our masters to do this because we are in thrall to the people who want to sell us things we do not really need and may not even want very much: perpetual “upgrades” to our mobile 'phones, televisions and motor cars. 

But in a world of finite resources, Keynes's world of less work is not just ever more attractive: it is also increasingly inevitable.

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All words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016