The conflict between competition and leisure

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_590 Apr. 14 11.15In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity due to technological progress would lead within a century to most people enjoying much more leisure. He believed that by 2030 the average working week would be around fifteen hours. Eighty-four years later, it doesn't look like this prediction will come true. Most full-time workers work two, three, or four times, that: and many part-time workers would work more hours if they could since they need the money.

So why haven't we come closer to realizing the expectations of Russell and Keynes? In their recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky offer an interesting answer. According to them Keynes' mistake was his failure to realize that capitalism has unleashed forces that can't be brought under control. Specifically, it has greatly inflamed a natural human desire for recognition and status, turning it into an insatiable desire for ever more wealth—wealth being the number one determinant of status in our society. If we could just settle for a modest level of comfort, we could work far less. But the yearning for more wealth and more stuff now leads people to spend far more time working than they need to. The same insatiability characterizes our society as a whole. Every politician and most economists take for granted that we should be striving with all our might to achieve economic growth without limit. The wisdom of this relentless, endless pursuit of economic growth is rarely questioned.

The Skidelskys' explanation of why we still work much more than Keynes predicted isn't entirely wrong, but I don't think it's the whole story or even the most important part. It's no doubt true of some people that they are driven to work more than they need to by insatiable greed. But I suspect that far more people work the hours they do because of circumstances beyond their control. For instance, many people work long hours simply because their hourly wage is quite low, so they work overtime, or perhaps take a second job, just in order to have enough to live on. Some live in expensive metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco, so even though they make a good wage, they actually need a full time job even to secure a fairly modest level of comfort, given the cost of housing. Many people keep working full time, even though they'd like to retire or go part time, because only a full time job will provide indispensible benefits like health insurance and a pension. And lots of people would like to cut back the hours they work but can't for a simple reason: their boss won't let them.

But there's also another factor preventing us from achieving a more leisured and balanced lifestyle, and that is the intensely competitive social environment in which we live.

Enthusiastic supporters of capitalism typically sing the praises of economic competition. It's the goose that lays the golden eggs—the golden eggs being innovation, higher quality goods and services, lower prices, economic growth, and consequently, at least for many, higher living standards, and the satisfaction of desires. Those who accentuate the positive here (who, it should be noted, tend to be people who can expect to be winners rather than losers) are also often inclined to stress the non-economic benefits of competition, such as its power to motivate hard work and produce excellence. Others may be less gung ho about the free market, but nevertheless accept a competitive environment as the situation we find ourselves in. The New York Times op-ed writers I read every morning over my corn flakes exemplify this attitude. A recent Nicholas Kristof article (NYT, 4-3-14) was titled, “We're not No. 1! We're not No. 1!” It was about how the US was falling behind other countries according to the Social Progress Index, and concluded, “The Social Progress Index offers a reminder that what's at stake is…the health of our society and our competitiveness around the globe.” Thomas Friedman regularly laments how the US is failing to do what it needs to do in order to keep up with the global competition. He compares American pre-college education unfavorably with what he sees in places like South Korea, Singapore, and Shnaghai. Globalization and the computer revolution, he argues, mean that the only way to sustain decent levels of skilled employment in the US is to do whatever it takes to compete with such countries, especially in education and in the hi-tech industries of the future.

From the point of view of someone like Friedman, to complain about living in a competitive culture would be like fish moaning about how wet their world is. To resist it would be like fish trying to quit the ocean and walk up the beach. The only thing to do in a competitive world is—compete. But is it? Must we all succumb to our current competitive environment by embracing its values, practices, and goals?

I'm happy to admit that competition can often yield desirable outcomes. But unless we're blinded by free-market ideology we should also recognize that a competitive culture has its drawbacks. For instance, it creates losers—many of them. Most start-up companies fail; most wannnabe athletes don't make it. A competitive environment is stressful, and where the competition is fierce and the stakes are high, the stress is correspondingly severe. Living and working in a fiercely competitive world makes it harder to enjoy leisure. While you're relaxing or recreating, you're continually aware that you could (and perhaps feel that you should) be doing something to make sure you're getting ahead of, or at least keeping up with the competition. And you may well be right: those that don't keep up fall behind and suffer the consequences, which can be serious.

This last point is the one I particularly wish to focus on. Competition is a treadmill. If you stop running you get thrown off. And if the treadmill speeds up, you just have to run faster. Treadmills are fine machines for those who like to use them, but they're no fun at all for people who don't particularly enjoy working out. Similarly, competitive environments in optional fields like sport aren't problematic: you can simply opt out. But this is not really the case in areas like education or employment. We find ourselves thrown into a world where the price for taking it a little easy is not trivial. In the worst cases, people may end up not being able to make enough money to escape deprivation and anxiety. But even for people free from worries of that sort, not being competitive may mean, for instance, that you can't go to the college of your choice, that you don't receive adequate financial aid, that you can't pursue the professional career you would prefer, that you don't advance in your career as you would like. I'm not saying that these outcomes are unjust; I'm simply pointing out that not throwing oneself into the game with sufficient gusto can carry unwelcome consequences.

In a highly competitive culture people are forced to work harder than they would like to or than is good for them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of children in school. As noted earlier, social commentators like Thomas Friedman worry incessantly about how American kids are falling behind kids in other countries in their mastery of important skills. Now I don't deny for a minute that he has good reasons to complain about defects in the American educational system, the main one being the shockingly low level of basic skills and basic knowledge attained by the majority of high school students. But the solution is not to emulate what goes on in places like South Korea. There, the intensity of the competition to get into prestigious universities means that many young people, and their families, feel forced to sacrifice a balanced life on the altar of professional prospects. It's common for high school students to study from five or six in the morning until past midnight, six or seven days a week, getting by on a very few hours sleep, eschewing entirely such things as sports, relationships, or recreational time with family and friends. In the US, students aiming to enter elite colleges don't usually go to such an extreme, but something of the same pattern has been emerging over the last twenty years or so. The anxiety this creates for all concerned was apparent in the controversy surrounding Amy Chua's 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Giving up on or shortchanging many of the traditional pleasures of childhood and youth—such as nice long periods of undirected play or just messing about with a few friends—isn't the only serious negative effect of life on the competitive treadmill. Another unfortunate consequence is the way it can weaken intrinsic motivation. Students are intrinsically motivated when they study because they love the subject, or just love studying. The motivation is extrinsic when it is directed toward earning grades, winning prizes, improving one's class rank, getting into college, and so on. The same distinction applies to other activities, including what we do to earn a living. In the workplace, money is the primary extrinsic motivator for most people.

Speaking as someone who has been involved in education for several decades, I would say that the single most serious problem in American education is the low-level of intrinsic motivation that so many students bring to the classroom. If a student finds a subject inherently interesting and really enjoys learning, everything else will take care of itself. That's why the starting point of any educational reform should be to focus on ways to increase the intrinsic satisfaction that students derive from studying. Yet the competitive environment militates against this. I admit it would be utopian to imagine a world where the only motivation for any activity is intrinsic. But it still makes sense to try to increase the intrinsic satisfaction that students derive from their studies and employees from their work, while steering away from whatever leads them to view what they do as a mere means to an end. It makes sense both because they will enjoy their work more and because they are likely to pursue it to a higher level.

In general, the most fortunate people are those who enjoy high levels of intrinsic motivation: for them, work isn't “work” in the bad sense; it's simply what they want to do. It's as if they're being paid to eat ice cream. But while an intensely competitive environment may force students to put in many hours of hard work, it can suppress virtues such as curiosity or love of learning. Inexorably, the focus starts to be on winning the competition, which means scoring the necessary points, which means making high grades and relentlessly prepping for specific exams—and these grades and exam scores come to be the end-it-itself over which students, parents, and, sad to say, teachers obsess. The tail wags the dog­–and that is not a formula for a happy dog.

To continue with the treadmill metaphor. We find ourselves on a treadmill while still young, and education teaches us to get used to being on it though our working life. It goes faster than many of us wish because we don't get to set the pace. Instead, the pace is set by the forces of competition. These include the familiar market forces of supply and demand–the drive to improve market share by producing a better product or producing it more cheaply than the competition. But they also include, less directly, the rivalry at the top end of the income chain between CEOs, board members, major shareholders, college presidents, and the like whose insistence on keeping up with their peers is satisfied on the backs of those working beneath them.

Capitalism's cheerleaders often talk about the productivity of competition and the efficiency of the market, and the market is undoubtedly good for some things—for instance, producing great stuff like iphones and cheap blue jeans. But it's pretty bad for producing other things like affordable housing in London, or low cost health care, or jobs for everyone that wants to work, or the more leisured lifestyle envisaged by Keynes. The problem is that market forces don't care about anyone's well-being or happiness. So they crank up the speed of the treadmill, quite indifferent to the effect of this on both the poor sods who are already busting a gut and the even poorer folks who can't climb aboard.

There is a solution. The government could enact policies aimed at making it much easier and attractive for people to settle for a modest but comfortable standard of living that doesn't require them to work too hard. Specifically, governments could guarantee free universal health care, free education, affordable housing through controls on the housing market, and an adequate state retirement pension. This no doubt sounds utopian, but there are, in fact, countries where each of these things is available. To the obvious objection that America can't afford it, the answer is: yes we can. There is a vast amount of wealth swishing around the United States, but its distribution is lopsided. Indeed, the country is much wealthier today than, say, in 1935 when it passed the first Social Security Act, or in 1944 when it passed the GI Bill. A similar point applies to many other countries that are far richer now than at the end of World War Two. The main obstacle isn't that such policies are economically unfeasible: it's that they require a more radical redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation along with much more extensive government intervention in areas like health care and housing, and both of these moves are fiercely opposed by currently prevailing ideologies and vested interests.

The single most important idea in Marx's philosophy is this: the social system we live under, which appears as a mighty alien power to which we must succumb as to a blind force of nature, is actually a human creation that we can, should, and will eventually bring under our control to serve our consciously chosen ends. This is how we should view the intensely competitive culture that we currently find ourselves part of. I am not saying competition should everywhere be avoided, abandoned or abolished. It has its place, its uses and its benefits. But we should also recognize that it is a serious obstacle to realizing Keynes' vision of a world where everyone enjoys relatively leisured, balanced lives, and work, in the words of Paul Lafargue, becomes a “condiment to idleness.”