Gary Cross is the professor of Modern History at Penn State University. In this piece, he raises an intriguing question in the context of modern American life but the question is equally applicable to middle class Indian life: “Output per worker increased by almost 300% between 1950 and 2018 in the US. The standard American workweek, meanwhile, has remained unchanged, at about 40 hours.

This paradox is especially notable in the US, where the average work year is 1,767 hours compared with 1,354 in Germany, a difference largely due to Americans’ lack of vacation time.

Some might argue that Americans are just more hardworking. But shouldn’t more productive work be rewarded with more time free from work?”

In fact, Prof. Cross is so intrigued by the phenomenon that he has written a book on it called “Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal”.

Prof Cross points that economists, including John Maynard Keynes, got their forecasts on this subject completely wrong: “…in the past, many economists assumed that people’s need for more stuff would eventually be met. At that point, they would choose more free time.

In fact, one of the most famous economists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, confidently predicted in 1930 that within a century, the normal workweek would decrease to 15 hours. Yet Americans in their prime working age are still on the job 41.7 hours per week.

Why was Keynes wrong?

Obviously, people’s needs or wants were not fully met. In the first half of the 20th century, advertising shifted in ways that emphasised emotions over utility, making consumers feel like they needed to buy more stuff; planned obsolescence shortened how long products remained functional or fashionable, spurring more frequent purchases; and new, exciting – but costly – goods and services kept consumerism churning.

So workers continued to labour for long hours to earn enough money to spend.

Furthermore, as wages rose, the opportunity cost of time spent away from work also grew. This made more free time less economically appealing. In a consumption-saturated society, time spent neither producing nor consuming goods increasingly appeared as wasted time.

Interest in slower, cheaper activities – reading a book, meeting a friend to catch up over coffee – started to seem less important than buying a pickup truck or spending an hour at the casino, pursuits that demand disposable income.”

Effectively, the power of advertising & modern marketing (both of which arose in inter-war America) was such that people got brainwashed into working longer hours so that they could afford the stuff that was being advertised.

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