March 31, 2018

Why Hasn't Economic Progress Lowered Work Hours More?

Tyler Cowen

Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University

On March 21, Tyler Cowen visited Duke to give a Hayek Lecture on why economic growth hasn't reduced the average number of hours Americans work. Professor Cowen's talk was prompted by an essay by John Maynard Keynes, who predicted in 1930 that in about a century steady economic growth would lead people to work less and spend more time on personal projects.

According to Keynes, "the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that...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."

Cowen argues that although work hours have remained fairly constant, there has been real progress, especially for women and the elderly, and that working more is not necessarily a sign that we are running on a treadmill without going anywhere. Sometimes work, he argues, can give our lives meaning, and can help us enjoy more of the activities and technologies that economic growth makes available.