Friday, 6 July 2012

Should the old work more, or should the young work less?

Nat Wei, recognising the boredom and lack of meaningful occupation experienced by many retirees, has proposed a ‘National Retirement Service’, which would find socially and economically useful work for the retired. His recommendation comes in the context of a project examining how the government can help people to manage radical life transitions, like retirement.

Robert Skidelsky objects that this approach is fundamentally flawed: “We shouldn't be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age”. His argument is motivated by Keynes’ belief that as the economic problem is solved, as we move towards a period of abundance and mechanisation, we should work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure. It has been calculated that the developed world passed the level of prosperity Keynes believed necessary to usher in such a leisure society in the 1980s.

Yet while Skidelsky presents himself in opposition to Wei, I’m not sure how much they really disagree. I think if you asked of each of them the question in the title of this post, they would be in agreement both that the old should work more and that the young should work less. And I think by examining this apparent disagreement we can better see the nuances that Skidelsky’s interpretation of Keynes needs to be an attractive proposal.

Wei’s recommendation is certainly inconsistent with a crude interpretation of Keynes, which sees work always as bad, and leisure always as good, once basic needs are met. On this view, people work far too much already, so any idea that anybody should work more is preposterous. Retirees have suffered enough, why burden them further?

But things are clearly not that simple. Leisure can be boring or aimless, while labour can be enjoyable, fulfilling and provide social interaction. Skidelsky seems to appreciate this: elsewhere, he has insisted that leisure is not idleness, but rather “activity without extrinsic end”. But surely this description applies to the proposed national retirement service, which clearly isn’t motivated primarily by economic considerations (the economic benefits of the scheme seem to be more a happy side effect). Crucially, Skidelsky himself proposes that the elderly should work three hours a week, suggesting that he accepts that such work can be beneficial.

So Skidelsky, unlike the crude neo-Keynesian is not against the old working longer. What, then ,is his disagreement with Wei? I can only imagine that he presumes Wei does not favour the radical shortening of the working hours of the young that he proposes alongside letting people work longer. There is no obvious reason for this presumption. Indeed, this idea of ‘smoothing’ work and leisure over our life cycles is entirely in the spirit of Wei’s insistence that we should make life transitions less sharp.

Even if this is the case, Skidelsky might object that it is mistaken or counterproductive to extend the working hours of the elderly without the complementary changes in the habits of the young. I see no obvious reason why the two proposals need to come as a package. We want the old to work more because they suffer the problem of too much idleness. We want the young to work less because they suffer the problem of too little leisure. Addressing one of these problems seems perfectly possible without addressing the other. Perhaps Skidelsky’s point is about priorities. The problem of too little leisure is worse than the problem of too much idleness. Even if this is true, it still gives us no reason to reject attempts to deal with the less acute problem. Though I’m sympathetic to Skidelsky’s overall project, Wei’s proposals do not seem to be a threat to it, and appear consistent with his desire to promote ‘leisure’ over idleness.

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