Whatever happened to the leisure society?

by Philip Ferguson

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of the biggest ideas being talked about by liberal supporters of capitalism was ‘the leisure society’.  Automation and the development of computers, people were told, meant that what once took 40 or 50 or 60 hours to produce now took much less time and soon would take so little that the work week would get shorter and shorter.  Because the same, or even more, goods and services would be produced, we could still get the same pay and be able to buy more and more.  The big struggle we’d have would not be making ends meet or trying to find time for leisure, but what on earth we’d do with all our new leisure time.

Keynes: in 1930 he predicted capitalism could deliver a 15-hour work week for the masses and we’d be living a leisured existence well before now

Indeed, this idea of a leisure society had been discussed even earlier, in fact right near the start of the Great Depression, by the leading bourgeois economist of that era, John Maynard Keynes.  In a 1930 article, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, Keynes had looked beyond the increasing economic difficulties, mass unemployment and poverty of the Depression to a period of dramatic recovery and improvement in the living conditions of the masses.

He noted that from the period of several thousand years before when Christ is supposed to have been born up until the early 1700s, living standards hadn’t changed much in what he called “the civilised centres of the earth”.  From the 1500s on, and especially the 1700s on, “the great age of science and technical inventions began”, making it possible to improve the living conditions of people, even while population increased dramatically.

He estimated that within the lifetime of people of his own generation, “we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.”  He predicted that in 100 years – that is, by 2030 – living standards in the advanced capitalist countries would be “between four and eight times as high” as they were in 1930.  Indeed, he felt, “It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.”  (The Depression, he claimed, was a sort of blip which would be overcome without too much trouble.  Avarice and usury “must be our gods for a little longer still.”)

However, what he called “the economic problem”, and defined as “the struggle for subsistence” which had gone on for thousands of years, would be solved altogether by the time his generation’s grandchildren reached adulthood.  At this time, he noted, a work week might consist of five shifts of three hours!

“Thus,” he wrote, “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

The future dread would not be the dread of want but the insecurity of having so much leisure time that people wouldn’t know how to fill it up.

Because people’s needs were being met and they could devote time to things other than toil in a workplace, people would be less obsessed about amassing money.  In this situation, “the love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental health.”

Distasteful and unjust practices, which might be necessary to accumulation of capital up until then, Keynes said, “we shall then be free, at last, to discard.”

The years following Keynes’ essay saw a deepening of the Depression and then a horrendous world war.  After that war, however, and largely due to it and the Depression, the accumulation of capital could resume.  The postwar boom, which lasted until the early 1970s, saw a massive expansion of production.  Globally output grew several times over.  Technological developments seemed, eventually, to confirm Keynes’ optimism.  Leisure studies even emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an academic discipline.  At the end of the 1960s, right-wing US president Richard Nixon declared “We are all Keynesians now” and the leisure society became part of mainstream discourse.

In 1975, American sociologist Max Kaplan noted that in the United States, “the normal extension of automation has reduced weekly work hours roughly from 70 to 37 in the past century, almost four hours per week less each decade; thus an additional reduction of 12 hours by the year 2000”.  He went on to make what he described as an “oversimplified projection” but one that was nevertheless, he felt, generally valid: “with the help of computerization, the additional time off could be five hours in the 1970s, six in the 1980s, and seven in the 1990s.  The result could be a workweek of 20 hours at century’s end.”

Yet the new discourse was barely established when the postwar boom came to an end.  Economic stagnation and crisis quickly dominated discussion. Mass unemployment returned.  Workers might have found they suddenly had plenty of leisure time, but it was because they had been made jobless and wageless.  The struggle to make ends meet occupied workers’ minds, rather than notions of the leisure society and how they’d fill up all the leisure from a 15-hour work week for the same pay they’d previously gotten for a 40-hour week.  Some workers who still had jobs found they had less hours and less pay.  Other workers found their work week lengthening.  The very problems of capitalism, which ensure that crises are a regular part of the system, had returned with a vengeance.

In the four decades since, capitalism has been unable to generate a new period of expansion in any way comparable to the long postwar boom.  So the world of work today is far, far removed from Keynes’ 1930 optimism and from the superficial leisure society prognostications of liberal sociologists and pundits in the late 1960s and very early 1970s.

Last month, for instance, a leading recruitment agency, Randstad, published a survey which showed that over 50% of New Zealanders feel that their work and private lives cannot be separated.  Far from having a leisure society, or even a work-life balance, the line between work and private time is well and truly blurred.  Randstad’s New Zealand director Paul Robinson told TV1’s Breakfast, “I think this has huge significance and is definitely a trend that will continue to grow.”  Bosses, he said, have increased the pressure on employees to prove their commitment by working outside of their contracted hours.

Not only did 56% of the respondents find themselves doing this, but 59% were getting emails and phone calls about work outside their contracted hours.  Almost a third of workers stated that their bosses expected them to be effectively on-call 24 hours a day seven days a week, while 60% said work dominated their lives.  Not surprisingly, 68% of the respondents said their pay didn’t match their work performance and 54% said they would be up for emigrating to get better pay and conditions.

The latest statistics indicate that in New Zealand there has been a steady increase in the work week.  So much so that 35.98% of men working full-time paid employment worked 50 or more hours (308,079), while 18.77% of women working full-time worked long hours (107,562).  Almost 16.5% of full-time male workers and almost 8.5% of full-time female workers actually work more than 60 hours a week.  Over half of agricultural and fisheries workers and about 35% of plant and machine operators and assemblers work more than 50 hours a week and a majority of both these groups working more than 50 hours are actually doing more than 60 hours a week.

By far the largest number of male workers plus the largest number of female workers work 40-49 hours week (see chart).  Instead of life getting easier, it’s getting more filled up with work.  Over a century after the achievement of the 40-hour week, most workers are working more than 40 hours, while many other workers are under-employed through being in part-time and insecure jobs on low wages or are unemployed and struggling to get by on the measly dole or some other benefit like the DPB.

In the United States, the richest capitalist country of all, Michael Yates reports, “In 2008, half of working men 65 and older were working full-time, up from 38 percent in 1994. For women, the change was from 23 percent in 1994 to one-third in 2008” and that “Surveys of those between 45 and 59 years of age indicate that a very high share of both men and women expect to continue working after they reach 65. This share is more than double the fraction of those 65 and older who are now working; therefore, the trend toward rising employment among the elderly will almost certainly continue.”  (See here.)  In Spain, the retirement age has been raised to 67, and in Ireland the Labour-Fine Gael coalition is raising it at 7-year intervals from 2014, so it will be 68 in 2028.

One of the cruel ironies is that Keynes was actually right about the technological capacity existing by now for us to have a 15-hour work week and all have enough income to live well.  What he didn’t take into account, however, was that capital doesn’t just develop technology; it continually throws obstacles in the way of how that technology might be effectively used to better the lives of everyone on the planet.  The development and spread of technology and its benefits is constrained by the fact that, under capitalism, human need is subordinated to private profit.

In this set-up, production and distribution are regulated by the market, a mere thing, rather than by democratic and conscious human planning.  The forces of production (which can expand, at least potentially, to provide material abundance for all) are continuously held within the limits of the social relations of production (where the means of production are privately-owned and operate on the basis of the exploitation of workers by capitalists).  This contradiction is, in turn, the source of regular economic crises in which workers’ pay and conditions are worsened and the rate of exploitation is stepped up by the bosses as they try to get out of crisis.  This requires them to make us work longer, harder, faster and for relatively less.

Whereas the work week shortened substantially between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s, no such further reductions in working hours have taken place.  The possibility of Kaplan’s 20-hour work week by the year 2000, let alone Keynes’ 15-hour work week, are further away than they were when those two people were writing.  So much for all the pooh-poohing of Marx as an outdated Victorian-era economist.

Indeed, in 1994 a look at work and exhaustion in New Zealand by the TV1 current affairs programme Assignment noted that it now took 60 hours of work a week to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with one based on 40 hours of work in the 1960s.  And so we come to the situation today where Labour, one of the two main capitalist parties, wants to raise the retirement age, ensuring that more of us work until we drop.  In the meantime, low pay, longer hours and less social mobility, and more blurred lines between work time and personal time are the best the system can do for us.  This is as good as it gets.

What happened to the leisure society?  Capitalism happened.


    • “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its’ reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed” Abraham Lincoln

      This quote says it all and what is interesting is that the gap between the rich and the poor is back to the level it was in Victorian Britain.

  1. The American Marxist economist Michael Perelman responded to this article on Marxmail and in an email to me. Among the interesting things he mentioned is that Keynes’ teacher, Alfred Marshall, actually wrote in 1890: “Now at last we are setting ourselves seriously to inquire whether there need to be large numbers of people doomed from their birth to hard work in order to provide for others the requisites for a refined and cultured life; while they themselves are prevented by their poverty and toil from having any share or part in that life.” 1890!

    What an indictment of capitalism that over 120 years later we live in a world where the potential exists for material abundance for all 6 billion plus people on the planet, but even before the financial sector meltdown began there were 1.2 billion workers globally in poverty. And factory conditions in newly-developing countries like China and India resemble those of Victorian England, as documented by Marx in the first volume of Capital.


  2. “Distasteful and unjust practices, which might be necessary to accumulation of capital up until then, “we shall then be free, at last, to discard.”
    I’m exhausted trying to work as a public servant for New Zealand for something I believe in dearly when the all of a sudden ‘strategic business’ I find myself unwittingly employed in has brought in ex-bank managers to manage ‘sales’ and ‘drive the business’ ‘going forward’ while avoiding ‘collateral damage’ (unless you are the servant who will of course be thrown to the wolves). The consequences are that the folk in this country are having yet another good service destroyed. Public Trust – free wills for all Kiwis, is being destroyed by the unreasonable greed of the government. Profit at every cost. Mr Keynes would weep if he saw his vision now.

    • Hi Sue, thanks for your comments. I wonder whether you’d like to write something about what is happening to the Public Trust? We’re keen to have workers at the coalface contribute to what’s happening in their workplace.


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