It is a safe bet that most of your ancestors spent most of their daylight hours working to find enough food and shelter to get by. Some of your forebears might have been idle and over-fed priests or potentates of some long-forgotten kingdom. Others might perhaps have stumbled into some uninhabited temperate ecosystem rich in food that didn’t run away or fight back.
But most of your ancestors, most of the time, struggled to keep body and soul together.
Consider, however, the amazing productivity of the modern farm and factory. Just a few per cent of the population produce our food, and just a few per cent more could run the machines that would produce more clothes and tools than our ancestors would know what to do with.
With food and basic needs taken care of, the rest of us are in “services.” We are newspaper columnists, lawyers, barbers, car detailers, yoga instructors, real estate agents, consultants, marketing experts, video game testers, policy analysts and so on.
Famous British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that by now everyone would be working a 15-hour week.
A few people are working this little by choice, but not many. And there has been an increase in leisure time for many people in recent decades. When I was a kid, we considered it normal that my father would work five days a week plus half of Saturday. This is less common now. Most advanced countries also have more holidays than they used to.
But most people still work 40-hour weeks. Some statistics even show that in the United States the average weekly hours worked has gone up in the last 30 years.
Part of this is a choice people make to have more toys and bigger houses. It takes money to produce those extra snowmobiles, big-screen televisions and extra rooms that you seldom use.
But a professor from the London School of Economics has a more insidious theory. David Graeber has recently written an article entitled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” He claims that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”
It is one thing to think that someone else’s job is a worthless waste of time. But Graeber is right to point out that more than a few people think this about significant chunks of their own jobs.
It brings back a few painful memories from my work experience, both in government and the private sector. When I worked at the Department of Foreign Affairs in the 1990s, some diplomats were talking about striking or working to rule (to protest how much lower our salaries were than government economists or sociologists, in case you were wondering). A friend of mine was against the idea, saying that he was worried that the powers-that-be would find out how little they noticed we weren’t working any more.
A corporate efficiency expert once told me about a major corporation that laid off 10 per cent of the white-collar staff at headquarters. No one in the field, and definitely no customers, even noticed. Yet the people who were laid off all had busy calendars and often worked overtime. What does this say about the value of the work they did before they were laid off?
Of course, some people enjoy the idea of having tricked “the man” into paying them 40 hours of money for much less work. They still have to go into work, however. It can’t be good for the soul in the long run to think so little of the work one does.
Assuming you don’t aspire to having a bullshit job, there are a few questions you can ask yourself.
First, did you make something beautiful that made other people happy? Musicians and artists often get paid much less than corporate bullshit jobs, but I suspect many of them find their work deeply satisfying.
Second, if you are not fortunate enough to delight others with your talents, did someone else at least find your work worth paying for? A pizza delivery guy or a professional dog walker does an honest service that the customer is willing to exchange cash for. That’s more rewarding than being paid big bucks to reformat the PowerPoint presentations at corporate headquarters.
I don’t know whether Keynes was right that we could get by on 15 hour weeks. But I think I’ll use his theory to justify taking an extra week of vacation next year.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Twitter @hallidaykeith