The American expectation that every generation must do better than the last is a creature of historical trends. Over the past 150 years, or about 6 generations, the average income in one generation has been about 60 percent higher than the average income in the prior generation. But it almost had to be given all the low-hanging fruit lying around. As Thomas Jefferson wrote about his generation in the foreword to the Daily Show’s America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction,
We discovered electricity, invented stoves, bifocals, the lazy susan, efficient printing presses, and the swivel chair. But in the 18th century it was nearly impossible not to invent something. “What if we put this refuse in a receptacle?” “Oh my God you just invented a sanitation system!” We lived in primitive times. Hell, I shit in a bucket and I was the president.
Rapid economic growth, and the result that each successive generation tended to be wealthier than the last, was almost inevitable. Additionally, improvements in well-being were very closely tied to wealth. After all, material comforts such as indoor plumbing were what improved one’s standard of living. This meant that leisure had a very high opportunity cost. Time spent on leisure meant time not spent generating income, and if happiness is tied to material wealth, then it’s an expensive trade-off.
Today, however, we are in a position to derive much of our happiness from pursuits internal to our minds. We do this by blogging, watching House of Cards on Netflix, listening to a symphony from iTunes, tweeting with friends and acquaintances, seeing their pictures on Facebook or Path, and learning and collaborating on Wikipedia. As a result, once one secures a certain income to cover basic needs, greater happiness and well-being today can be had for virtually nothing. What is the point, then, of doing materially better than one’s parents?
In his 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” John Maynard Keynes imagined a future 100 years later in which per capita income had increased fourfold or more. With 17 years to go, his prediction was right. But Keynes also thought that this increase in per capita production would result in people working fewer hours—only 15 hours a week to maintain a reasonable standard of living in 2030. The real challenge, he worried, would be filling up our leisure time. That hasn’t come to pass—or has it?
In his essay, Keynes divided human needs into two categories, “those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior, to our fellows.” He argued that before long a point would be reached when our “absolute needs” would be satisfied in the sense that we would prefer to work less and less.
While Keynes was wrong about the number of hours spent at work, he was certainly right about our preference for leisure.
Leisure is a poorly defined concept. Economists tend to think of it as any activity that isn’t work. But that just raises the question, what is work? For our purposes we can think of work as an activity in which you would not engage if all your “absolute needs” had been met. A professional painter would likely paint even if he didn’t have to make a living, but he probably wouldn’t engage in bookkeeping, marketing and the other necessary aspects of his business.
What do I do for a living? Essentially I read a lot, I talk to a lot of interesting people, and I blog, tweet, and write articles like this one. Don’t tell my employer, but aside from some mildly unpleasant things like going on TV or talking to politicians, I’m doing exactly what I would do if I was a billionaire and didn’t have to work. That is, what counts as work for me might as well be leisure. For all intents and purposes, I am indeed working only 15 hours a week just as Keynes predicted.
My income today is roughly the same as that of my parents. However, as someone with a law degree, I could have chosen a path—as many of my law school classmates did—that would have doubled it. It was a path of 80-hour weeks, mind-numbing work, and the rat-race to become partner. The only reason to choose this path, it seems to me, would be to satisfy my “relative needs,” and luckily I’ve kept those in check. Yes, I could have done better than my parents, but instead I chose to consume more leisure.
Many young people I know—journalists, activists, developers, and designers—are making the same choice, even if they don’t realize it. They are choosing to live below their potential means in order to be happier. And while you see them “work” very hard and for long hours for stagnant or declining wages, they are in fact having a ball and obviously getting paid enough to do it.
For many, we are already living in a post-materialist world where wealth has been decoupled from well-being. We won’t do better than our parents materially, perhaps, but we’ll nonetheless have a better standard of living.