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More leisure and less economic growth? – The psychology of achievement motivation

August 20, 2012

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky imagine a world where we work 15 hours per week, enjoy our leisure, and save the world from environmental collapse through a Keynsian economics that slays the dragon of capitalist slave labour. It is an attractive prospect.

At a dinner  a couple of years ago, I sat opposite a young woman who had just returned to Dublin after 8 years away. She had been in New York since, she told me, working in corporate law. I asked her how she liked New York: she astonished me with her answer – ‘I was there 8 years and I do not know it’.

The reason for this was that she had worked 7 day weeks, 16 hour days for her entire period in that wonderful city. “One morning I was so tired, I forgot how to put money in the machine to get my ticket in the subway’ she told me.

She also told me that in her office of a two hundred mainly young people, none were in a romantic relationship, apart from one partner, who had a wife and family. Imagine, all these handsome, clever young men and women with the most natural instinct in the world – bonding – crushed out of them!

She was now back in Dublin,  still beautiful and clever,  now  thirty, but strangely lost, like an exile from some country she could not quite identify.

I now find out that very many of our brightest young people are essentially indentured labourers their natural development stunted and their lives derailed by the maddest of systems which makes workaholics of them. How on earth are they ever going to bear children?

This memory makes the Sidelsky’s article so appealing. A   system that makes people work 70,80 and a 100 hour weeks is essentially a middle class Gulag to which our youngest and brightest are sent.

Yet there is something about their argument I cannot quite buy. In my laboratory at Trinity College Dublin I have some very, very clever and hard working young people who work longer hours than I do because of a hunger to find out things about the world. The last thing they are motivated by is power – they are driven by a pure and rather beautiful drive to achieve something for the world – new knowledge, both for its own sake, and for the possible applications for the cure of disease that it might bring in its wake.

The thought of inculcating them into a 15 hour per week leisure culture just seems plain daft. The need for achievement for the worthiest of purposes motivates in a way that leisure dose not – leisure is the down-time from our life’s work, not its aim.

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