Saturday, 16 November 2013

We don't work too much but we spend too much time at work

I've just posted a short piece about UK GDP, GDP per capita and what constitutes an economic recovery. A lot of people think that if GDP is going up but average real wages are falling and the overall financial position of many people is worse today than it was a year ago, then there is no economic recovery. It's hard to argue with that position.

But that's only part of the issue. 'GDP' is a measure of the total output of a country in monetary terms, but increasing total quantifiable output definitely isn't the only thing we should be trying to do.

Harry Eyres wrote a column for today's FT called Why work so hard? He quotes John Maynard Keynes' prediction that by 2030 we would all be much better off and would work far fewer hours. Keynes was right on the first, wrong on the second and Mr Eyres wants to understand why.

When I read the article I wondered whether Mr Eyres considers that writing articles for the FT is 'work' and would rather spend less time doing that and more time doing 'leisure' which is by definition more fun. Because if that's the case, he's doing a good job of kidding us, as his writing style suggests that travelling, reading, thinking and writing about the world as he sees it, is how he would spend his leisure time even if he did less 'work'. Journalists, especially ones who write  columns like the 'The Slow Lane' aren't typical, but the line between 'work' and  'leisure' is being blurred and many of those who say they would rather spend less time 'working' often really mean 'less time at work, in this job'.

There are, I think, three issues. The first is money, the second is how we choose to spend our time and the third is our jobs.

When Keynes said he thought we would work fewer hours, 'work' meant leaving home to earn money in a farm, factory, mine, docks or army (for the vast majority of people, at any rate). The difference between work and leisure was very clear and that is why we have measures such as GDP which count the output from 'work' and ignore everything else (most obviously housework). This also gave rise to a fixation with productivity, a measure of how much we can produce per hour. Give me a better machine and better training and I can produce more, faster. More, faster, means more money and that's good. And so Keynes believed that we would reach a point where we could earn enough money to have fun while working fewer hours.

We still go to 'work' for money, but quite a lot of people would do the same thing in their leisure time as they do at work. One of the tragedies of our society is that so many old people suffer from loneliness and that's one reason why people work. You go to work to get paid, but it becomes a centre of your social life. I've seen too many men retire and then age 5 years in a few months and slowly vegetate because they have no idea what to do with their time, to believe that a life of enforced 'leisure' is so appealing that it should be the dominant goal of my working life.

I choose economics as a way to spend time, for work or in leisure. It would have been nice to have played golf this morning but frost having intervened, I've spent a couple of enjoyable hours reading. Was that work or leisure? The answer is that today, it's leisure because I'm not being paid. And that's a good thing because otherwise, I'd have to count all the hours I spend thinking about financial markets as 'work' and that would immediately make me less productive.

But here the difference between 'work' and 'job' becomes more important. How many teachers, doctors, nurses, or policemen for that matter went into the profession for love, but became disillusioned because of how they spend their time. If I could work from home whenever it was convenient; and surf the web, chat with friends and socialise when I was at 'work' that would not make less productive, it would just make me happier. Firms create insane levels of bureaucracy, of measurement and of time-wasting, partly in order to justify 'work'.

I'll give an example from financial market research. Almost every fund manager or other investor I have ever asked, has told me that what he or she wants from investment bank research teams are short, timely, thought-provoking ideas. They haven't got time to read long pieces, unless every single word is necessary to help them make money (and even then they want a one-page precis). They don't much like multi-authored 'house view' pieces because these tend to group-think consensus. They prefer high-conviction, spur of the moment pieces, or research that was the product of incredibly detailed analysis but summed up in a few words or even better, a single chart.  And I know more and more who think 140 characters is about right for a research note.

So how do the world's investment banks react to this plea for brevity and strong opinion? By doing the exact opposite, of course. 'Less is more' is a great philosophy but persuading an employer that it would be a better idea to write less and go and spend four hours thinking on the golf course on a Monday morning, isn't easy.

So, Mr Eyres, I don't want to work fewer hours, but I don't want to waste time doing the wrong kind of work in the wrong place, either. I just need to persuade my employer to pay for my work, irrespective of where I do it.

Which takes me to another FT story, written by Izabella Kaminska on the Alphaville Blog. It considers The rise of the non-monetised economy but is worth a read on many levels. Ms Kaminska is paid to write pieces about foraging for mushrooms and wondering what to give her godchildren as presents, but as I pointed out earlier, maybe journalists aren't typical when we consider what is work and what is leisure.


  1. Great article! In the last decade I certainly have seen the rise of a generation more willing to blend work and leisure. I grew up on the tail end of a generation that valued a strong work ethic and limited leisure time. This resulted in major burn out for many professionals who began to flee the corporate world and explore nontraditional ways to financially support themselves. It's been my experience that even government agencies are now allowing flexible work hours and home based offices to accommodate these preferences and streamline their budgets.

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