Yet the surprising fact, unnoticed by the Skidelskys, is that we already spend less than 15 hours a week, on average, working in the areas of agriculture, mining, and manufacture. In that sense, Keynes’ prediction has already come true, fifteen years ahead of schedule. Let’s look at some numbers.
Instead of starting with employment, let’s look at data for GDP. Consumer goods (including durable and nondurable, farm and nonfarm, but excluding services) account for 25.5 percent of U.S. GDP. That includes consumption of imported goods. (Imports of goods are equal to 13.5 percent of U.S. GDP and exports of goods to 9.4 percent, making net imports, including both consumer and non-consumer products, equal to about 4.1 percent of GDP.) Let’s suppose that Americans were to produce all goods consumed in the United States, at an average level of productivity, and at the same time were to drop production of goods for export. Even so, it would still only take 9 hours of our average 35-hour week to meet our demand for consumer goods in full–well below Keynes’ prediction of “three hours a day to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”
These numbers cast a different light on the puzzle of leisure. The question is not why we spend so many hours a week producing wet suits and golf clubs that we don’t really need. The fact is that goods production doesn’t really occupy much of our working time. The puzzle, instead, is what is important enough to occupy the rest of our working hours, rather than devoting more of them to leisure?
Keynes thought that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks by now. Instead of being content, we work more in order to maintain the services that we associate with a first-world standard of living. The majority of the hours we work don’t go towards basic needs like food and shelter – they finance the government, health care, and education.