Work as leisure: The Skidelsky’s, TVs and Personal Trainers

Father and son Skidelsky’s essay In Praise of Leisure has gathered substantial commendation. There is much to commend it. We should be making better choices in the balance between work and leisure. Materially, we are satisfied. Yet, I still think the essay fails. It fails not only because it requires a mandate but because it misunderstands the accelerating cross-over between work and leisure.

The essay discusses modern economic life in the context of Keynes in 1930 when he prophesised that by 2030 we would be as lilies in the field who toileth not. Practically, Keynes argued we would work just 15 hours a week and devote the remaining time to higher pursuits. The Skidelskys argue that the achievement of this prophecy is perfectly attainable. We have the resources we need to work less but we require a mandate to fulfil it; we must be compelled not to work more than 15 hours.

The essay touches on many points this blog is attempting to discuss. In particular, it is critical of the idea of imposed scarcity:

People in rich and even medium-rich countries no longer starve to death…The beginning of sanity in this matter is to think of scarcity in relation to needs, not wants…the problem is that a competitive, monetized economy puts us under continual pressure to want more and more. The “scarcity” discerned by economists is increasingly an artefact of this pressure…our state is one not of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance…but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach…the aim of policy and other forms of collective action should be to secure an economic organization that places the good things of life—health, respect, friendship, leisure, and so on—within reach of all.

This is undoubtedly true. The “good life” is within the grasp of all of us, but we find it so difficult to achieve, collectively.

Yet, I can’t agree with the conclusions. I don’t want to define what is sufficient nor what is abundant for an individual. Personal choice is an important part of happiness, what we are ultimately all trying to achieve. A mandate seems dead wrong.

Most importantly, I don’t believe they understand work.

First, work is good for us. The feeling of achievement and working within a team offer substantial comfort and add to our well-being. I love my job. I would spend more than 15 hours a week doing what I currently am paid to do, even if I was mandated to work for just 15 hours. Indeed, I would argue the Skidelskys happily work much longer.

Second, the world of work is changing and it is this shift that will best realise the Keynes prophecy. We truly live in a world of material abundance. As we become more efficient at producing material abundance we shift to service demand and creation. Increasingly, services are based on what people are most passionate about.

Here’s an example.

This chart is one I will constantly refer to. I think it explains so much about the world today: the decline of manufacturing employment, the difficulty of making money in manufacturing and the productivity improvement in Asia. But in this context, it’s about the shift to services.

Price changes create income and substitution effects. The income effect in this case would suggest we can now afford 5 televisions compared to the 1 we could buy back in 2006. But of course there are few of us who now own five televisions. Instead, we’ve substituted the savings form the TV to other spending.

For instance, I like to think the falling price of televisions is directly inverse to the rise of personal trainers. Cheap televisions probably mean we watch too much TV, we put on weight, but because our televisions are so cheap, along with other material goods, we spend more on personal trainers. Take this quote from IBIS World analyst, Naren Sivasailam, commenting on the $1.7 bn gym and personal training industry:

“On the one hand, consumers are clearly expressing a desire for health and fitness, but on the other we do have an increasingly inactive lifestyle, although this could come down to impediments like a busier lifestyle and longer working hours,”

In the context of In Praise of Leisure the rise of the personal training industry in Australia highlights a third way. Rather than continually making the trade-off between work and leisure, we can now see work as leisure. Personal trainers are working in what is their leisure pursuit. Work and leisure have become one.

An alternative way of illustrating this, is a great ad campaign by Chinese white-good manufacturer, Haier. It highlights the substitution effect that lower prices creates as the advertisement below shows. The first ad is not so good, it implies two leakages from Australia; the manufacturing and the Bali holiday. But the second is exactly the story above.

When I mentioned this idea to a group of financial advisers recently, one adviser said he was in the process of selling his practice and opening a photography studio. Work as leisure. The abundance of the material world puts happiness within our reach.