Monday, March 1, 2010

The leisure dilemma: Rebound effects from productivity improvements

A recent report from UK think-tank New Economics Foundation generated plenty of publicity recently by suggesting that a 21hour standard workweek would significantly improve well being by giving people more time for family, friends, neighbours, and leisure activities. My own experience is that reducing work time has surprisingly large positive impacts on well-being.

Interestingly, economist John Maynard Keynes envisaged in a 1930 essay on the Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren the following situation

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.

The productivity gains imagined by Keynes did eventuate. Everywhere we look we can see far greater output per hour of labour, from agricultural production all the way through the production processes in our complex 21st-century economy.

However recent research suggests that leisure time has been relatively constant since 1900, and time spent on home production activities (cooking, cleaning etc) has actually slightly increased. Additionally, while time spent at work over a lifetime has decreased since 1900, most of this is the result of more time spent studying.

How is it that we continue to fill our time not with leisure, but with work, study, and household chores?

There is a rebound effect at play.

To properly explain how this rebound effect occurs at a national (and sometimes international level), we need an analogy closer to home. Instead of businesses and industries improving productivity across the economy, imagine yourself improving your productivity during your working life. You start on low pay as a youngster and edge your way up the ladder to better paying jobs over time.

Immediately we can see the analogy is sound. Most people don’t take their gains in productivity (as reflected by increases in their salary) as leisure time. Rather, they continue to work the same hours (or more) and receive a higher income.


The problem is one of cooperation and it has striking similarities to the classic prisoner's dilemma. You see, if you take your productivity gains as leisure time, and the next person doesn’t, they can bid up prices for things you might like to buy (such as land). However, if you both cooperate and each take more leisure time, you will both face accessible prices.

In our analogy, if everyone took their gains as leisure time, incomes would be relativity even, but each person’s work/leisure ratio would be different. The most productive people would work the fewest hours and vice-versa. Because each person’s income is the same, there would be little opportunity for people to outbid each other on prices, or out consume each other in status displays.

Furthermore, as our productivity increases (or our hourly rate of pay in this analogy) the gains at the margin from working just one more hour are far greater. Compared to when you were the local barista making $15 an hour if you worked longer, you might now make $60 per hour and find that you can make in a couple of hours in the evening what you used to make in a day.

How do we overcome this cooperation problem?

There is a simple answer at an individual level, and that is to decrease your consumption expectations and take your productivity gains as leisure (as I have done). There is also a more difficult answer at a society-wide level. Yes, we can regulate maximum working hours and penalty rates for overtime. However, penalty rates increase marginal benefits from overtime hours. Maybe instead we could have anti-penalty rates. After a certain number of hours by law your pay decreases per hour, until after say 30 hours, there are zero benefits from working any longer.

But, as I have discussed before, regulating working hours is a tricky game. Such a law would encourage a cash economy for labour in order to avoid the laws (and avoid taxes), allowing individual workers to get ahead.

In fact, in the spirit of free choice, I would discourage further regulation of hours. Instead, I would opt for solutions such as more public holidays (which also allow a coincidence of leisure for more workers), and labour laws that encourage flexibility and part-time work.

Maybe my grandchildren will be so lucky as to face Keynes’ leisure dilemma.


  1. An interesting blog indeed. It does seem that the only real way to have your idea fully realised is to change peoples philosphy on life and in more economic terms change the Homo Economicus way of thought. But at the least if some are doing, than others may follow and who knows where it will lead.

  2. this would perhaps be more effective if as a group we had not been socialised to accept that the more we acquire the happier and more successful we are??? when in reality the more leisure time and the more options we have with our leisure time - while still maintaining a comfortable living standard - the more successful and happier we may be - keith

  3. Loic and Keith, you both point to the fact that people assume consuming more is better. The next post links to some research showing that we have a fundamental tendency to think that buying goods will bring us happiness before a purchase decision, but upon later reflection, we can acknowledge that our greatest happiness comes from shared experiences.