At Quora

Why is humanity constantly in a rush? Couldn’t a lighter work ethic still sustain a prosperous economic environment for everyone?

Tim Worstall

Mebbe. Now think about who gets to make the decision. In a free place, in a liberal polity, that’s the individuals who have to do the work, or who get to enjoy the leisure.

To an economist this is “utility”. That mix of communing with nature, slumping on the couch with a pizza, working to provide the cash for hyperconsumerism that people do. The economists’ assumption is that people rationally – rational here not meaning entirely calculating, but just consistently – maximise their utility.

OK. So, what do people actually do?

We’ve been doing less work and taking more leisure for about 800 years now.

What confuses people is the thought that work is what we get cash for. This isn’t true. Work is everything that isn’t personal time – sleeping, eating, washing – and isn’t lesiure. Work comes in two flavours, household, also known as non-market – caring for children and family, washing the clothes, cleaning house, cleaning the gutters etc, cooking – and market – going out to work for The Man.

The accurate description of working hours over the past 800 years or so is that we’ve been doing fewer and fewer household production hours, women have been doing more market hours, men less, and both men and women have been having more leisure.

Effectively, and not wholly accurately but it illustrates the point, we’ve been automating the household work and going out to work in the market to pay for it. In modern times think vacuum cleaner, washing machine, microwave, ready meals and so on. But it stretches back a long, long, way. The spinning wheel was the automation of hand spinning. The early industrial revolution the automation of the spinning wheel. And until you think about it you’ll not realise how much time women did spend upon hand spinning. At least hundreds of hours of labour a year for near each woman.

Another way to put this. We all, now, have vastly more leisure than even our grandparents, let alone those hundreds of years before us. Given that this is so we must have a lighter work ethic, right?

And how much lighter should it be than it is now? Well, that’s up to the people doing the work and taking the leisure, isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “At Quora”

  1. I have always had a pretty good work ethic. When I was younger there were times when I worked tons of overtime but, being young and irresponsible just wazzed most of my money away. Meeting my wife who had a much more disciplined approach to money really changed life for the better. Later my philosophy on life actually precluded working my arse off just so that I could have more and better stuff. Now I’m retired but have a million jobs piled up at home.

  2. The answer is no. Worked part time for most of this year (at least, tried to) as an experiment, idea being to get more of my own shit done.

    I got less work done (obviously), put in more overtime (should have seen that coming), got paid less (obviously), and did _less_ of my own shit, not more. Obviously, outcomes were heavily confounded by the current unpleasantness, but I won’t be doing it again in a hurry.

    Obviously this will also vary depending on personality, but I am convinced there are many of us, men in particular, who should simply never retire.

  3. BiG – seconded. I’ve had a fairly quiet second half to 2020 work wise, due to da COVID and thought this might be an opportunity to get on with some Other Stuff I have been planning over a couple of years. Achievement level – zero.

    You definitely need something to do in your retirement otherwise you either get depressed or find yourself uncorking the first bottle at breakfast.

  4. I got retired in 2016 (I think – time passes when yer having fun).

    Luckily, all was sorta planned – seemed to me the biggest risk to a fun life was having nothing to do, but we’d already put in place the basics for becoming BlokeInTejasInNormandy some of the time – lots to do with a somewhat bedraggled chaumiere. Plus touristing! New friends! food’nwine!

    But also started technical (software) project of my own. Always wanted to have an “architecture description language” (for computers, not buildings) whose implementation I understood and which didn’t need hundreds of megabytes of other Stuff (Boost libraries; python; CMake…, C++,…). So I started to build one. It’s fun, even though limited, and I’m learning.

    But I also found I missed arguments over the whiteboard with smart folk, so I eventually took up post-retirement real employment. Just in time for The Plague to make it impossible to argue over whiteboards! Turns out that I needed to write bits of software I hadn’t intended to write yet (the “discrete event simulation” bits you need to exercise your lovely architecture) but that gave me the opportunity to think a bit about how this should actually be done for computers and now my solution is well over 10x faster than the “industry standard” solution that was officially adopted. Builds 100x faster, too 🙂

    So yeah, retirement’s fun. So’s not retirement 🙂

  5. You’re very likely wasting your time posting something as sensible as that on Quora Tim.
    From an economic perspective, what does that make your effort?

    ;-P

  6. BiG and MC- agree. I had three months out of work this autumn and despite lots of plans spent most of it twitting about online…

  7. ‘Why is humanity constantly in a rush?’

    Not in evening traffic. I’m convinced guys with ugly wives are in no hurry to get home.

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