It is a relief to know that one can be poor, young, and unemployed, and yet fairly content with life; indeed, one of the hallmarks of a decent society is that it can make even poverty bearable. But the long-term prospects of these men may be even bleaker than their present. As Hurst and others have emphasized, these young men have disconnected from both the labor market and the dating pool. They are on track to grow up without spouses, families, or a work history. They may grow up to be rudderless middle-aged men, hovering around the poverty line, trapped in the narcotic undertow of cheap entertainment while the labor market fails to present them with adequate working opportunities.
But when I tweeted Hurst’s speech this week, many people had a surprising and different take: That it was sad to think that a life of leisure should be so scary in the first place. After all, this was the future today’s workers were promised—a paradise of downtime for rich and poor, alike.
In the classic 1930 essay “Economic Possibility of Our Grandchildren,” the economist John Maynard Keynes forecast a future governed by a different set of expectations. The 21st century’s work week would last just 15 hours, he said, and the chief social challenge of the future would be the difficulty of managing leisure and abundance.
“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem,” Keynes wrote, “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."
The same idea was echoed in a 1957 book review for The New York Times, in which the writer Erik Barnouw predicted that, as work became easier and more machine-based, people would look to leisure to give their lives meaning.
The increasingly automatic nature of many jobs, coupled with the shortening work week, seem to be creating parallel tensions, which lead an increasing number of workers to look not to work but to leisure for satisfaction, meaning, expression … Today's leisure occupations are no longer regarded merely as time fillers; the must, in the opinion of both social worker and psychiatrist, also perform to some extent as emotional buffers.
But 60 years later, it seems more true to say that it is not leisure that defines the lives of so many rich Americans. It is work.
Elite men in the U.S. are the world’s chief workaholics. They work longer hours than poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in other advanced countries. In the last generation, they have reduced their leisure time by more than any other demographic. As the economist Robert Frank wrote, “building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”
Here is the conundrum: Writers and economists from half a century ago and longer anticipated that the future would buy more leisure time for wealthy workers in America. Instead, it just bought them more work. Meanwhile, overall leisure has increased, but it’s the less-skilled poor who are soaking up all the free time, even though they would have the most to gain from working. Why?