Nearly every society has vastly more wealth today than ever before. So why doesn’t the world’s burgeoning wealth afford its citizens more leisure time? Why, indeed, are we working much more rather than a little less? One reason, argues author Elizabeth Kolbert, is that busyness has replaced leisure as a status symbol. Keeping up with the Joneses means more than purchasing the same consumer goods as them; it means staying as busy as they are–nay, busier! Rather than work to purchase our basic necessities, as John Maynard Keynes held, therefore affording more leisure with more money, we work for a variety of complex reasons.
What’s the Big Idea?
One reason for our obsession with work, offered by the recently-deceased Nobel economist Gary Becker, is that our thirst for material possession knows no bounds. As soon as we reach one level of material comfort, we quickly become accustomed, and begin our pursuit for the next echelon of goods. Joseph Stieglitz points out that that quality may be unique to the American culture, as opposed to the Europeans who have learned how to take paid vacation. Still a third group of economists say that work contains in it an essential value that gives meaning to our daily existence. Which do you agree with most?
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