Jevons paradox

Despite numerous technological advances, why do we have so little leisure?

Back in 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons noticed a strange phenomenon. James Watt had recently introduced the Watt steam engine, which was significantly more efficient than his predecessor Thomas Newcomen’s design. Watt’s invention got a lot more work done with the same amount of coal. Therefore, the British government assumed that it would reduce the rate of consumption of their precious stockpile of coal. However, the opposite happened.

This phenomenon is Jevons paradox. It states that when technological progress increases the efficiency of use of a particular resource (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), its rate of consumption increases rather than decrease.

Why does this happen? Because when it is more efficient to use coal, more people start using it. The demand for coal consumption spikes along with the efficiency gains. It becomes cheaper to manufacture clothes, so more people start buying clothes. It becomes cheaper to take trains across the country, so more people start travelling. The efficiency gain achieved through technology has an unintended side-effect – an externality – which spikes up demand for the resource.

Let us consider how this might apply to our leisure. Back when we were hunter gatherers, we worked for merely 30-40 hours a week, including all the domestic chores needed for subsistence. That amount of work was enough for gathering food and cater to our basic material needs. The rest of the time was spent in carefree leisure. In today’s world, despite myriad technological inventions, a 30 hour work-week, even discounting domestic chores, is rare.

Just like coal, our time is a limited, non-renewable resource. In line with Jevons paradox, when technology helps us do something quicker, the market responds with a greater demand for our time. A quick takeaway lunch is soon converted to a “working” lunch. Email and an internet connection lets us work more efficiently, so we end up taking work home. And the job market promptly eliminates anybody who doesn’t follow suit – like he who refuses to answer emails past 4 PM or she who takes long lunch breaks.

Just as Jevons observed, the “invisible hand” of the market will not be mindful of how your time is utilized. In fact, it has the opposite tendency. As governments and individuals, we need to decide what is most precious to us. Certain societies, like the Scandinavian countries, have managed to go back to the 30 hour work week we once enjoyed. But its their culture, not free markets, that have enabled this.

Source: Jevons paradox – Wikipedia

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