Is Leisure vs. Labor Irrelevant?


This New Yorker piece brings up a worthy dilemma of our age.  The focus of this story is on Keynes’s prediction that future generations will have so much idle time that it may even be bad for society.  Anyone who works even the most flexible of full-time jobs has to be laughing.   The story brings up some ideas on how Keynes could have been so wrong.  Here is my theory.

Keynes postulated that as more capital was accumulated, this capital would be substituted for labor, and in turn, people could use that time that would be spent on labor for leisure. 

While useful for modelling purposes, it is against the facts of life to split leisure and labor, especially in a post-industrial age.  This trade-off worked pretty well when a worker’s options were either to be on the assembly line making widgets, or back at home where work was inaccessible.  

The digital age has made this distinction obsolete.  While working from home is a possibility, is calling into a conference while shopping online leisure or labor time?

Our standard of living greatly surpasses previous generations, but one consequence has been the loss of a work-leisure distinction.  Keynes lived right at the tail-end of this revolution, and still thought of a clear trade-off between the two. 

Unfortunately, anyone who works in the 24-hour e-mail cycle knows that mixing “business with pleasure” in this way leans incomparably toward business.

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