We were discussing the bizarre situation of an impending recession amidst labour shortages in the west with a bunch of clients recently. Soon the discussion moved to how the world, especially the west will likely move from a minimum wage set-up to a minimum work environment to coax people who have excused themselves out of the work force to show up at work. One of the clients promptly shared this remarkable essay from almost a century ago where the legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a century hence i.e, 2030 or roughly now, a fifteen hour work-week will likely be reality. Keynes should need no introduction but for those unaware, Keynes’ macroeconomic principles also known as Keynesian economics is fundamental to mainstream economics followed by many a policymaker across the world.
Keynes begins the essay with how mankind barely progressed in the two millenia running upto the 16th century and then followed up with two centuries of rapid technological progress which inturn raised the human standard of living multifold.
“From the sixteenth century, with a cumulative crescendo after the eighteenth, the great age of science and technical inventions began, which since the beginning of the nineteenth century has been in full flood–coal, steam, electricity, petrol, steel, rubber, cotton, the chemical industries, automatic machinery and the methods of mass production, wireless, printing, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, and thousands of other things and men too famous and familiar to catalogue. What is the result? In spite of an enormous growth in the population of the world, which it has been necessary to equip with houses and machines, the average standard of life in Europe and the United States has been raised, I think, about fourfold. The growth of capital has been on a scale which is far beyond a hundredfold of what any previous age had known. And from now on we need not expect so great an increase of population.”
… There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. 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. For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment. This means 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.”
History rhymes indeed. Whilst this was written in 1930, it sounds all too familiar today. Then Keynes goes on to make his prediction:
“All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day….assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race. Why, you may ask, is this so startling? It is startling because-if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past-we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race-not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms. Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature-with all our impulses and deepest instincts-for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.
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.”
Whilst he goes on to write about the immorality of wealth accumulation for the sake of it, he also reckons we will still need a purpose to motivate ourselves:
“….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 to-day, 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!”
He concludes the essay on this brilliant note:
“The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things-our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three. Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose. But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”
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