The Golden Age: The 15-Hour Working Week Predicted by Keynes May Soon Be Within Our Grasp. Are We Ready for Freedom From Toil?
I first became an economist in the early 1970s, at a time when revolutionary change still seemed like an imminent possibility and when utopian ideas were everywhere, exemplified by the Situationist slogan of 1968: ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible.’ Preferring to think in terms of the possible I was much influenced by an essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ written in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist whose ideas still dominated economic policymaking at the time.
Like the rest of Keynes’s work, the essay ceased to be discussed very much during the decades of free-market liberalism that led up to the global financial crisis of 2007 and the ensuing depression, through which most of the developed world is still struggling. And, also like the rest of Keynes’s work, this essay has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years, promoted most notably by the Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward.
The Skidelskys have revived Keynes’s case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness. As they point out, their argument draws on a tradition that goes back to the ancients. But Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.
Writing at a time of deep economic depression, Keynes argued that technological progress offered the path to a bright future. In the long run, he said, humanity could solve the economic problem of scarcity and do away with the need to work in order to live. That in turn implied that we would be free to discard ‘all kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital’.
Keynes was drawing on a long tradition but offering a new twist. The idea of a utopian golden age in which abundance replaces scarcity and the world is no longer ruled by money has always been with us. What was new in Keynes was the idea that technological progress might make utopia a reality rather than merely a vision.