Way back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote The Economic Possibility of Our Grandchildren. He argued that the fears about economic stagnation were overblown and the world was actually going through unparalleled technological advancement and capital accumulation. He talked about how 100 years from now, people will have more time for leisure, and hours spent on work would be reduced drastically, thereby redefining our relationship with employment.
Keynes forecasted that the “standard of life” in Europe and the US would be so improved that no one would need to worry about making ends meet. Our grandchildren, Keynes reckoned, would work about three hours a day, and even this reduced schedule would represent more labour than was actually necessary.
This essay was written and revised right around the time of the Great Depression. Keynes was not ignorant of what was going on. He quickly recognised the gravity of the situation and wrote: “The slump which will take its place in history amongst the most acute ever experienced” over the long run would prove to be just a minor hiccup in the grand scheme of things.
Was Keynes delusional?
According to him, the technological innovation in the 19th century would make growth inevitable, which would create abundance but would also pose the challenge of meaning. “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 leisure? For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Strive, prepare, work, and postpone what you want to do with your life for one insurance policy after another. This led to a nagging sense of frustration. Delayed gratification as a career strategy is being questioned by everyone, especially millennials and Gen-Zers. The need to find autonomy, mastery, and purpose at work is gaining traction and the passion economy is becoming a major cultural influence. There is a lot more acceptance of alternate career choices today.
If our grandchildren were to have all the economic security in the world, perhaps some version of basic income, lots of leisure and just 15 hours to work, what would they choose to do?
Will platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram still be alive in 100 years? Will people spend all their time performing online, striving for flickering fame by climbing the social hierarchy? Will they channel their economic security into creating social and economic wealth for those in need? Will the struggle for meaning become more pronounced? Will work revolutionise play or the other way around? What would culture really mean? Will your grandchildren be interested in status?
If status-signalling loses its appeal, people are likely to experiment more to fulfil their curiosities. Today people have built decent careers creating videos, writing newsletters and bringing out digital products, but they all come with a performative zeal attached. It is this elusive war of likes and swipes in the currency of hyperscale.
For our grandchildren, the meaning of scale may be redefined. They may be more interested in the depth of impact than in metrics. It will change the way social networks function, how our grandchildren live, who they interact with and who they serve. The world could become more local. The centre for an economic opportunity could be the neighbourhood and it may not be dictated by the place of birth. Our grandchildren might be more interested in creating digital societies and countries on the cloud than in building apps that tantalise.
They are unlikely to waste the economic security they will be bestowed with. It isn’t a guaranteed outcome, but a likely one. The 22nd-century challenge will be far more social and meaning-oriented than economic. In fact, their economic possibilities will emerge from crafting social and communal experiences.
Future follows fiction. Keynes wrote an economic essay, but in a way, it was a futuristic story. Based on a wide range of assumptions and some truths, he drafted his future vision. We should do the same and not make sense of the future only by going through sound bytes and memes. It is time to create some distance between the world we live in and the world we want to shape for our grandchildren.
The future economic and social possibilities are not pre-ordained. How we think of our stories today and how we write them will pave the way for an uncertain, unpredictable but hopefully exciting future.
CEO, Network Capital; Chevening Fellow, University of Oxford