Hard work: John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic and Richard Branson enjoying the lives of the leisure class

Hard work: John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic and Richard Branson enjoying the lives of the leisure class

I find holidays paradoxical. The thought of sitting on a beach, staring over the ocean and watching the sun set seems like a great way to spend a Friday evening after a productive week of work, but to do so for a week or two – or even a month – seems, to me at least, a frightening prospect. And do what? Listen to the waves. Oh okay, I’m listening. And then? No, listen. Switch off. Think of nothing but the waves. Hmm, okay. Tik tok. And now? As soon as I’m on holiday, there’s an urge to want to be productive.

I’m being unfair to beach holidays, of course. Every December I spend at least a few days on the beach, soaking in the southern sun, and reading my too long list of books. It is paradise. But I do sometimes wonder about the idea of leisure: what is its purpose and how to best use ‘free’ time, i.e. time not spent working? I’m not only thinking about it because I’ve just been on holiday (which made me think about the value of leisure time) but because I’m reading a book in which a couple of leading economists predict the future. Their predictions are fascinating and not all positive, but one of them, the idea of more leisure time, had me thinking: do we really want a 3-day work-week? What would we do with all our free time? Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, suggested the same thing in a post yesterday:

New innovations will drive industries forward, but they will also reduce our reliance on people power. Ideas such as driverless cars and drones are becoming a reality, and machines will be used for more and more jobs in the future. Who knows, maybe even pilot-less planes, could become reality one day! On the face of it, this sounds like bad news for people. However, if governments and businesses are clever, the advance of technology could actually be really positive for people all over the world. It could help accelerate the marketplace to much smarter working practices. The idea of working five days a week with two day weekends and a few weeks of annual holiday is just something people accept. For some reason, it is considered set in stone by most companies. There is no reason this can’t change. In fact, it would benefit everyone if it did.

The trade-off seems straightforward: More work means higher incomes, which in turn means a greater ability to consume. Better technologies would mean that we can do the same work faster, so instead of working five days a week, we can get the same work done in three days. More time for leisure, right? Well, not exactly. What if ‘work’ provides some utility? What if you have a job that you actually enjoy: not always, of course, but a job which brings success and a sense of self-worth. (Just consider someone that is unemployed. It is not only the fact that they do not have an income that matters; it is that their skills are unwanted by anyone else.) In addition, leisure – let’s think of travelling, for example – is costly. So having a long weekend every weekend may not sound so appetising if you think about what it might do to your wallet. More importantly, what if what we do is not about maximising our absolute utility – i.e. obtaining a certain level of income that would satisfy our basic needs – but instead maximising our relative utility, in other words, keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians). In this case we would be forced to spend more hours working harder to reach the top of the status ladder.

It is for this reason that John Maynard Keynes’s prediction, made a century ago, has not been realised. While he correctly predicted that living standards would vastly improve, he believed that we would spend a considerable larger amount of our time on leisure. (In technical terms, he overestimated the backward-bending labour supply curve.)

Thus 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.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me – those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties – to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

The decision to switch to a more leisure-filled life would presumably have important consequences for society too. Richer individuals would substitute income for leisure, meaning that inequality would fall. The poorer part of society will work harder until they attain a certain level of wealth, and then also begin to substitute income for leisure. But I just don’t see this happening. Perhaps we’ll leave the dull, mind-numbing tasks for computers and robots, but we’ll certainly continue to work. Look at the richest individuals: do they work any less than us normal folk? Not really. Yes, they certainly enjoy a higher standard of living, with access to better medical services and larger houses and more travel and better education for their kids. But they don’t actually work less. The backward-bending supply curve only really kicks in once people reach retirement age.

The paradox of leisure is that we want to have the freedom to afford it, but when we do we choose more work instead. Even if we can ensure a minimum income to all citizens, either through something like a basic income grant or because a lot of things are now free as Michael Jordaan has argued, the truth is that ‘the old Adam in most of us’ (or is that Eve whispering in our ear?) will want us to work harder so that we can move up the social ladder (or at least avoid moving down). While we all need a holiday once in a while (or something besides doing what we normally do), I don’t see us working three hours a day and spending the rest sipping cocktails and watching the sunset over the horizon. Not even Richard Branson, who owns his own beach on his own island, does that.