When those on their deathbed are surveyed what they regret the most in life, one of the most common answers is having worked too hard. Yet when our economic system produces an invention that allows us to spend less time producing the same amount of goods or services, we instead work the same amount and produce more. What makes this even more perverse is that this has been increasingly the case during a period when we have become increasingly aware that our growing consumption is both environmentally unsustainable and provides us with diminishing increases in our well-being. Indeed, there’s even research suggesting that there is a decline in life satisfaction after a country reaches a certain level of GDP per capita, although it should be stated that there is no consensus on the impact of economic growth on happiness among researchers.
To illustrate the change in the trajectory, take the UK as an example. After the war and up until the early 1980s, productivity gains translated into a 20% increase in the leisure time of workers. Since then, productivity has continued to increase but leisure time has remained roughly the same. If the economy had continued to allocate an equal portion of productivity gains to increase leisure time, the British people would spend 13% less time working. That would mean taking more than 1 in 8 working days off. A similar development has occurred across the developed world.
Benefits of spare time go beyond workplace productivity
There are numerous studies pointing out how reductions in working hours can increase productivity. In many occupations, the impact is not just economic. In medical care, for example, it can literally translate to more lives saved as medical errors (one of the leading causes of death) are reduced. However, the discussions and cost-benefit estimates of increased leisure time have neglected an area that this article seeks to address: the socially beneficial impact that more spare time has outside workplace productivity, and how to increase those benefits. For example, if people have more spare time and as a result, they exercise more, this can lead to a reduced burden on the healthcare system.
These impacts should not be underestimated. Adult children visiting their parents and cooking for them means that there is no need to pay for a social care worker to do that. If this sort of unpaid care provided to the elderly by (disproportionately female) family members, friends and neighbours would be reduced by one fifth in the UK, it would require the state to double their spending on all adult social care. This would mean that the taxpayers would have to pay around £670 a year more on average. The improvements in the quality of life for individuals receiving visits from family members instead of social care workers cannot be measured precisely, but are likely to be substantial. Increases in leisure time can lead to an increase in these sorts of unpaid but valuable activities. For example, a study in Korea found that each one-hour reduction in the official working week led to men visiting their elderly parents 6.5% more often. This impact could perhaps be strengthened by interventions such as vouchers that allow people to use public transportation to visit their elderly parents free of charge or with a discount. The non-transactional mutual obligations, such as those parents have towards their young children, and adult children towards their elderly parents are crucial to a functional society. Strengthening these can therefore also be crucial to making our societies function better, and most importantly, they are an immeasurably important part of what makes life meaningful. A survey of randomly selected Australians revealed that the mistakes in their life people regret the most are to do with not honouring these sort of mutual obligations we have towards others and other non-transactional relationships. Our most intense regrets are not “I wish I had bought Bitcoin or Apple stock years ago”, but rather things like “I wish I had spent more time with my children when they were still young” or “I wish I had not lost touch with my friend”.
Making it easier to use spare time better
Our current economic system is ripping apart this social fabric of non-transactional relationships that glue human societies together and give our lives meaning. 15% of men in the US say they have no close friends, up from 3% in 1990. We also spend less time socialising with our neighbours and our colleagues outside the workplace. The impact can be potentially devastating, as research shows that social capital is related to a number of social indicators, ranging from long-term economic growth to life expectancy. Its decline will make us perceive the world around us in a more threatening way, and helps explain why we are witnessing a collapse in trust towards each other and all our major institutions. Increases in leisure time itself does not automatically translate to more social interactions, which is why they should be combined with reforms that channel the spare time into virtuous cycles of compounding interest on our social capital. A simple example of such a reform could be the creation of dog parks; fenced areas where dog owners can let their dogs roam free. In Helsinki, every neighbourhood has one such park, and it is commonplace for dog-owners of the area to know each other as they regularly socialise in these parks. Australia has free outdoor barbeque grills, which are so popular they are often described as a national treasure. New York has iconic chess and checkers tables in central park. These are not complex or expensive ideas to implement, and if we put our intellect and imagination into inventing them, there are endless possibilities for new ideas.
Two men playing chess in Central Park, New York City
Reforms to increase leisure time are often fairly straightforward and obvious, such as increasing the number and length of public holidays and reducing the legal working hours. However, reforms to enable people to use their spare time in a more socially beneficial manner requires more numerous, smaller reforms.
For example, in Bristol providing free access to gym and swimming facilities combined with a public awareness campaign increased overall levels of physical activity by 8%, with the increases concentrated on those on lower incomes. There exist numerous examples of libraries expanding to loaning a variety of items rather than just books, such as power tools that people can use to renovate their homes, and sewing machines to repair and revamp clothes. We could have a public awareness campaign to encourage people to edit Wikipedia, or public recognition awards for contributions to open source software projects that have a socially beneficial impact. We could record and make freely available online lecture series’ given in the best universities in the world and enable people to use their time to acquire top-quality education in whatever field interests them. We could open up at least parts of the BBC video archives and allow the material to be used by documentary or music video creators on the condition that the videos created are freely available for everyone to view. Again, there is an endless supply of what could be easily done.
Towards new ways of measuring success
So why aren’t we doing these things? One key reason is the ways we measure the success of our policies, or rather, the lack of different ways of measuring success and a fixation on the single key metric of ‘GDP’. All other things being equal, the decline in the amount of time spent working reduces GDP. This metric is flawed, not just because it doesn’t take into account working hours, but it is increasingly divorced from other indicators of prosperity. Having a divorce with a fierce legal dispute and cancer that requires expensive treatment increases GDP. Taking time off from work to have a walk on the beach with your partner reduces it. It doesn’t take into account the sustainability of the growth – it might show us that we are driving faster, but that isn’t particularly encouraging if the car is on fire and heading off a cliff. In 2015, Ireland saw its GDP grow by 26% as large multinational corporations like Apple moved their operations (at least on paper) there. This was the most dramatic annual increase in GDP of any developed country ever. Yet this had no impact on the everyday life of ordinary people – indeed, surveys showed a small decline in happiness among the Irish.
Fetishising any single metric leads to what is called “Campbell’s Law”, named after (in my opinion) the greatest social scientist to have ever lived, Donald Campbell. The law is simple:
“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”Donald Campbell
A classic example of this is nail factories in the early Soviet Union, which measured output first by the number of nails produced. This led to the production of nails so tiny that they were useless. The metric was then changed to weight, which led to the production of nails so heavy that they, too, were useless. Whilst the Soviet economic system was inferior to the modern market economy, we are not immune to similar problems.
To acquire more economic prosperity, we need to scrap GDP and move towards more sophisticated and numerous ways of measuring success instead of a single, neatly defined metric.
Similarly, the neatly defined distinction between leisure and work should be blurred by encouraging people to use their spare time to build ventures that are something between a hobby and work. The boom in microbreweries represents this sort of activity. Often these businesses are started by a group of friends for whom it provides a way to earn some extra income by doing something they all enjoy. Mutual Interest, the publication you are reading right now, is an example of this sort of enterprise. We provide an opportunity for people to earn a little extra by writing articles about topics that interest them. Additional earnings from these sorts of activities could help offset the losses from channelling productivity gains into leisure instead of earnings.
While GDP is our flawed measure of success when looking at the economies of different regions, the business world is obsessed with measuring success by shareholder value. This metric, too, has become more divorced from reality as we have increasingly organised our economy around it. Last year, a New Jersey sandwich place called Your Hometown Deli, with a local high school wrestling coach as its CEO and $13,976 in revenue, was valued at $113 million in the stock market. A healthcare company called Clubhouse Media saw its share price soar over 1000% simply because investors confused it with a social media app that had a similar name. Whilst not a stock company, Dogecoin is an embodiment of this sort of speculative madness. It does not even pretend to be anything other than a joke, but it is valued above Moderna, a pharmaceutical company that developed a vaccine for Covid-19.
When companies measure their success solely by quarterly shareholder profits, their ability to make society more prosperous becomes more limited. For example, let’s imagine that Facebook would develop a new feature that would allow users to organise sports events. If it was successful, users would spend more time exercising instead of watching ads on their feeds, which would mean less profits for the shareholders. Therefore, the platform would never implement such a feature. However, were Facebook structured like Wikipedia, which doesn’t seek to make a profit and is democratically governed by its users, there would be nothing stopping it from implementing this feature.
Indeed, Wikipedia is a fantastic example of the sorts of ventures we should make it easier for people to start and build as they have more spare time. Whilst its contribution to humanity has been so enormous, it is hard to estimate its impact, and unlike other heavyweight tech giants, there are few reasons to be concerned about the harm and risk it poses to society. The earnings it generates come entirely from voluntary contributions, and the massive amount of work that has gone into creating it has been done by people in their free time.
Not every venture can rely on voluntary contributions of money and work; we need businesses that pay wages and sell goods and services. However, those businesses don’t have to be shareholder-owned profit maximisers. Around the world, 1.2 billion people are members of co-operatives – businesses democratically owned by their members, such as customers or workers, with a purpose to maximise their benefit, in a way in which the members themselves choose to define it.
This structure enables them to measure success in more meaningful ways, and can take into account the impact they have on their members’ well-being in a more comprehensive way beyond just a transactional cost-benefit analysis. A great example of this are the community pubs in the UK, which are democratically owned by the local residents. They often become strongholds of generating social capital, fostering stronger ties between residents. As residents have a stake and a say in the business, they take initiative to help the pubs prosper. In one of the pubs, a member-owner drives elderly people to regular events in the pub with his minibus. Many of them would be entirely isolated from basic human interaction without this. In another, families use the kitchen facilities to cook healthy meals, that they then eat together. Many have clothes banks, where people can donate and pick children’s clothes. It is common for informal community groups, such as a group of joggers, walkers or cyclists, to gather in the pub after their sessions to enjoy a nutritious meal together. At least one of them even has a Bike Library that allows people to rent bikes for free. More often than not, local non-profits are also involved in the enterprise – whether it be a dementia or autism charity that uses the facilities to set up meetings, or a local football team (some of which are fan owned cooperatives) that eats together after their practices or celebrates together with their supporters after a match.
The community pubs also prove measuring success in more comprehensive and numerous ways than maximising shareholder profits doesn’t mean poorer performance on more conventional measurements of business success. Between 2009 – 2019, the number of community pubs has increased from 2 to 119, while overall, the number of pubs in the country has declined by one fifth. Astonishingly, not one community pub has ever gone bankrupt or ceased operations, even through the Covid-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc by forcing a tsunami of closures in the sector.
Most of the pubs have raised funding through “community shares”, a financial instrument tailored for cooperatives. These shares give the investor no control over the enterprise, but allow them to earn a return if the enterprise generates a surplus. After an agreed period, they can also withdraw the money. Rather ironically, although the purpose of these enterprises has not been maximising returns, community shares have provided a better return than FTSE 100, an index of 100 largest publicly traded companies in the UK, during a period when records for both exist.
Towards a new society
The economic system of the future might not provide many of us with similar growth in our ability to consume goods as it did during the previous generations. However, it can provide us with more meaningful lives, where we can spend more time doing things we enjoy. Even though our earnings and spending might grow at a slower pace, we could earn and spend more of our money in enterprises that we have a stake and say in, and that have our best interests at heart.
There might not be an increase in the number of people who own a swimming pool, but we could have more clean beaches and public swimming pools for everyone to enjoy for free. A new, improved iPhone might not be issued as often as in the past, but we could use our iPhones more often to call our friends to go watch a football match of a team we co-own, and afterwards, going to a community pub we co-own to have a drink that comes from a brewery we co-own.
We might die with a less expensive car in front of our houses, but perhaps also with less regrets. We could live more fully and in a way that lets more life on this planet flourish.
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What makes for the most intense regrets? Comparing the effects of several theoretical predictors of regret intensity
The effect of adult children’s working hours on visits to elderly parents: A natural experiment in Korea
Adult social care at a glance
GDP and life satisfaction: New evidence
UK workers could be owed a significant holiday
Top five regrets of the dying
Impact of free access to leisure facilities and community outreach on inequalities in physical activity
Long Working Hour Related Medical Errors