Got Lots of Satisfaction, Except From Government

Goodbye jobs, hello Artificial Intelligence, AI. In its most threatening form, generative AI, is developed to the point where it is capable of creating text, images and other products from our personal data. Some estimate that almost all jobs will be affected in whole or part, with millions eliminated in marketing and advertising, teaching and accounting, not to mention a host of manufacturing jobs.

Less Work, More Time To ….

As the amount of work available for humans declines, the time available for work is increased as AI speeds medical advances that extend life spans. The Economist reports that  “Should the latest efforts to prolong life reach their potential, living to see your 100th birthday could become the norm; making it to 120 could become a perfectly reasonable option.” As the Pew Research Center puts it, “The possibility that extraordinary life spans could become ordinary lifespans no longer seems far-fetched.”

Less to do, more years in which to do it. We may have gone from the dread of dying in the traces, to use a long-ago worry, to a fear of staying too long at the ball. Which may explain why a majority of American adults – 56 per cent — say they would not undergo medical treatments that would allow them to live long enough to blow out 120 candles. Most believe an ideal live span is 90 years.

We are not talking about some far-distant future reduction in demand for work. Legislatures in six states are considering bills mandating a four-day work week which implies a 32-hour work week, and congress has before it a bill that would reduce the federal definition of the standard work week from 40 to 32 hours. That would force employers to pay for the 33rd and additional hours at prohibitive overtime rates. Not quite the 15-hour work week that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in his 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”, but headed in that direction.

What Do We Really Need, Or Is It Really Want?

Keynes aimed to soothe the nerves of those rattled by  increases in efficiency that seemed to be taking place faster “than we can deal with the problem of labor absorption…” He predicted that in 100 years, only seven years from now, the standard of living in progressive countries would be four-to-eight times better, and “it would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still”.

Keynes was right that it would take less and less work to earn what he deemed enough. Between the time of Keynes’ 1930 forecast and 2022, not yet his full 100 years, the real value of goods and services per capita in the US increased 20-fold, from $1,015 to $20,014 according to data analysts Statista. And the average work week did decline in that time, from about 50 hours in the 1930 to around 35 hours in 2023.

That remains far more than the 15 hours per week that Keynes predicted would be our fate by now as the forward march of technology creates “ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed.” What the great man failed to take into account was the infinitely expandable notion of just what constitutes “economic necessity”.

He did not and could not foresee from his own vantage point as a social, political and economic success in society and the economy that “Please sir, I want some more” was a desire not only of the poor. Human wants and ambition do not stop when the earnings from 15 hours of work provide “enough” money. More is far better than less for most people, and more is subject to continuing upward revision, especially as appetites for stuff and experiences expanded with the means of communicating what others have, and the range of goods and services available.

Nor could Keynes foresee that the great, flexible capitalist economies would create labor markets that lowered the hassle and burden of work. Post-covid adjustments to the definition of work mean that weekends now begin Thursday afternoon, when restaurants now open early to serve homeward bound commuters. But Keynes was right that at some point less work and more free time becomes an attractive proposition. Workers choosing hybrid work are forgoing an 8 per cent pay rise – almost $100 per week or $5,000 per year added to average earnings – to have more time to tend to relatives, watch TV, engage in sports and exercise, and attend entertainments, although most likely less elegant and intellectually demanding than the ballets Keynes preferred.

Americans Are Satisfied With Their Lives But Not Their Government

Between 81 and 90 per cent of Americans tell pollsters they are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their family life, current housing, job, education, community and personal health. But 78 per cent say the country is on the wrong track as it heads to an election contest between a man too self-absorbed to consider the national interest and one probably beyond the days in which he will be able to discharge the burdens of the toughest job in the world, one AI cannot replace.

Satisfied residents of a country they believe is going to heck. As Yul Brynner’s perplexed King of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.”