As I am about to go on vacation I notice this more than ever: it is busy wherever I go. And everyone is busy. Although according to a recent survey we need an average of 18 vacation days to really rest, not many people actually take almost four weeks off work. Because with an average of 26 vacation days in the Netherlands, you also want to have a few left over for the rest of the year. And while in most European countries more people are in work than ever before, the labour market is very tight.
The more I think about this, the stranger this seems to me. Why are we all letting ourselves get so stressed? Are we really such idiots that we cannot think of anything better than to consider work as our mission in life?
According to the most basic economic theory, people work in order to acquire income. Once that income is high enough to provide for their needs, they will stop adding more hours to their workday. Work is simply effort for which you ask a reward. Elements such as meaningful work and status do not feature in this theory. In 1930 Keynes therefore believed that by 2030, as production per employee increased, people would only have to work 15 hours per week.
For companies, the considerations are different. Companies want to make a profit and to achieve that, their turnover needs to grow. They can do this by producing smarter, but also by employing more people.
In order to achieve an increasingly high turnover, they also need to sell more and more. To us, as consumers. And in order to make us buy more, we need to be convinced that we constantly need something new, something better, something different but especially MORE. And that means that we need to work more to earn more income, to buy more. And there you have the treadmill from which we cannot escape.
Let’s take a step back. It would be quite possible for us to work less if we were not always being seduced to want more and more. Keynes already said so in 1930: we can only work less if we limit our ‘insatiable needs’. But what we actually do is maintain our own compulsion by considering it a law.
Of course, there are people that enjoy their work so much, that they do want to work more hours. But don’t forget that working what we perceive as full-time – even if it is less than let’s say fifty or a hundred years ago – is still an anomaly in long-term human history. Hunters-gatherers and even farmers worked only a few hours per day. And for the rest they enjoyed life. The introduction of power structures made us work harder. First, forced by landlords or conquerors. And since capitalism, forced firstly to acquire a living wage and nowadays, for large parts of the population in rich countries, by our own greed and customs.
And so my advice is: get off the treadmill and take a nice long vacation. Don’t constantly let yourself be seduced to work more. Because you can’t fool me, a lot of work is not satisfying at all for most of us. Of course, if you don't earn enough to cover your cost of living, then I fully understand. But apart from that? We simply produce too much stuff that we do not need and on top of that we also let ourselves be seduced to buy all that useless stuff. Work less, enjoy more, lounge about, relax and consume less. Then we also need fewer people that work. Because really, everyone is dispensable. Enjoy your vacation!
This is a translation of Hans Stegaman's column in Het Financieele Dagblad, published 19 July 2022.
Also read Hans' previous column 'Cranking the flywheel'.