Revisiting Keynes Prediction for a Post-Work 2030 in “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”

I’ve been revisiting original texts that people seem to quote over and over and that has led to a lot of thought that emerged in the 1930s and 1950s. This essay from Keynes I found to be incredibly readable and still highly relevant.

In 1930, amid a global depression, John Maynard Keynes pondered the question, “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence?”

The title was “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” By grandchildren, we are talking about the millennial and Gen Z generations who happen to be questioning whether work should be the center of our lives anymore.

In the essay, he predicts that “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day” which has mostly been realized (about six in the US). His point is that this standard of living might open up new possibilities or what he states, “greater progress still.”

What he is getting to is that at some point in the future (for him, 2030), we may have moved beyond our “traditional purpose” or “the struggle for subsistence” towards a world where we may have to contemplate other ways of being.

He goes on,

Thus 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.

However, he does not think that people will readily accept this transition. He predicts a collective “nervous breakdown” and cites as evidence the wealthy in that age that have struggled to “occupy the leisure” which they have achieved by solving their own basic economic problem.

We rarely see the entrepreneur that says “I’m good!” after selling a successful company. They go right back into startup world, branding themselves as “serial entrepreneurs.” Leisure can wait. For the less lucky in the economy, they have to deal with the shame of unemployment.

Yuval Harari calls these unlucky people the “useless class” but he is quick to point out that they are not useful in a moral sense, but purely in an economic sense:

I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

I often here the modern refrain “you can’t just not work” and I would completely agree based our our current culture and what we value. In order to manage this transition, we will need to broaden our conception of value beyond the monetary-based definition of worthiness.

This is most clearly demonstrated when we ask, “how much does GDP increase if a parent decides to spend their time raising children?” It doesn’t increase at all. But if that parent decides to take a full-time job and hire a full-time nanny? GDP increases two times!

Our concept of “work” or at least the work that we hold important needs to expand beyond what can be paid for and to things that include childcare, taking care of the sick, volunteer work and creative work. As I sit here typing, this feels like some form of work while at the same time feeling utterly distant from the PowerPoint decks of my past.

Keynes addresses our belief in work for works sake and suggests that “Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

I imagine Keynes would delight in being alive today as he practically acknolwedges that we are not there yet (in 1930, that is)

But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

In order to get to this post-work state Keynes outlines, he acknowledges that our underlying beliefs will need to shift:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable.

This inversion of values seems unfathomable today where in the US making money is seen as almost universally good and our expectation of the kind of life one should enjoy has steadily risen. Keynes acknowledges that “the needs of human beings may seem to insatiable” but seems to think this can be overcome.

Let’s take a quick look at demand for housing, where you notice that as people have gotten wealthier, they have demanded bigger houses and not decided to spend less. The average home size has increased about 1,000 square feet over the last 40 years (while the # of people in that house has shrunk).

Keynes may think that humans can overcome their “insatiable desire” but I’m not so sure.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

Leave a Comment