Keynes, Posner, Skidelsky on Leisure

Oh, old white men, you have so many ideas. No, I love it.

But seriously, I fully endorse the shorter work day and the shorter work week. From personal and anecdotal experience, I can say that a 4 day week was a really wonderful experience for me. I also have to say that during circumstances when I have had multiple part-time jobs (and was working 4-6 hours at each per day, I was much happier and more productive. I was dog-tired at the end of the day, but I got a lot more done at each job.

The eight hour workday is arbitrary, isn’t it? Who is to say that 8 hours, 5 days a week is the best amount of time to “work”? How does one define work and productivity across a huge variety of contexts? After 3 years of working directly with artists around these issues, I know that spending 12 hours in the studio when you are on a roll, or staying up for 3 days straight writing a novel is not uncommon. Does that mean it is healthy? Does that mean you are more “productive”? As opposed to what? Besides, artists have trouble defining a “finished” product anyway, so how could you ever be done? At some point, you just have to move on to another project. 

Anyway, these measures of productivity, production per capita, the impact of technology on productivity, the mechanization of manufacturing and the rise of knowledge work, the complete lack of flying cars…these would all be incorporated into a model of overall quality of life in our “Future” times, as Posner presumably does in this review. This is also a hypothetical that really only addresses the substantial improvement of life in England and America (and similar first world economies). 

But I love this question, “how much is enough?” This question asks how much does the individual have to contribute to the whole, in order to maintain a certain standard of living as a society? Posner asserts that we must continue to work hard in order to better our standard of living moving forward. I think my own life would be immeasurably better if I could “live” off of my income from working fewer than 5 days a week, and spend the rest of my time volunteering, reading, writing my blog, maybe going back to school, going to the beach and having a champagne cocktail in the afternoon without fear of recrimination. I was raised in a French school, and these “European” values have shaped me for life. But also, my experience in “full time” work have shaped my current opinions. As some who has variously worked 60-70 hours weeks, 40-50 hours weeks, barely 35 hours weeks, student’s hours, freelance hours, and been unemployed, I can say without hesitation that the times in my life when I have worked more hours do not correlate to the times in my life when I have been most productive (it correlates extremely closely to the times in my life when I have been most tired). But the balance between the two (the benefit to the individual and the benefit to society) is what is sought, right? Well, not sought by everyone.  

But this is just me thinking out loud, I have not read the book (yet). 

The review: Working 9-12 by Richard Posner

The book: How Much is Enough? by Richard and Edward Skidelsky

h/t to the Slate Political Gabfest for the mention of this book review (I’m firmly in Hanna Rosin’s camp on this one) 


  1. DanS said:

    Well, the labor movement gave us the 8-hour day. Don’t forget: “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what you will!” That said, the 8-hour day has never applied to the professions. You must do the job that needs to be done.

    I will say that when I have worked laborious jobs, I would always rather work 4×10 or even 4×12 (if paid hourly), than 5×8, particularly if the commute is bad. If the round trip is 2 hours, that’s a lot of my life I am giving up to the car or train.

    The argument about working fewer hours because the economy is bad and we should distribute work is different, as is the idealism about automation and improving quality of life requiring fewer hours to achieve the same standard of living.

    • You are so right! I am completely forgetting my labor history here. But I think because I would suggest that office/knowledge work can be accomplished in a less fixed framework or hours/days.

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