For most of human history work meant manual labour, often difficult, dangerous and wearing. With the rise of machines and cheap energy to fuel them, forward-looking thinkers began to speculate about a future age of leisure, where people freed from toil would cultivate philosophy and the arts and other higher pursuits. We know how that turned out, of course. We’re busier than ever, leisure time is shrinking, and the highly paid elite – bankers, doctors, lawyers and so on are working even harder than everybody else. In short, another famously wrong prediction.

Except, if you look closer, those utopian dreamers weren’t actually that far off the mark. Physical labour really is pretty much done. Almost all of the heavy lifting it is now done by machines. We even have devices like the Segway, designed to replace walking – the ur-activity which marked us off from our chimp-like ancestors all those millenia ago. For more and more people work means interacting with customers or sitting in an office. But then, anyone who ventures out in any major city during “business hours” will find the streets, sidewalks, shops and cafes packed. People are sightseeing, strolling around, window shopping, snacking, slurping on lattes while surfing on their Netbooks. Who’s working?

Well, ok. Not everybody is out lollygagging; there is a noticeable weekday afternoon surge down Bay St in the direction of the GO trains, starting at around 3:45 pm. But then again, what are these employees actually doing? A nice little piece in the Post today by Rudyard Griffiths of the Dominion Institute makes the point. About 30,000 municipal workers are on strike in Toronto, and the city has not exactly been brought to its knees. In fact, apart from only a very slight increase in the amount of trash on the sidewalks an out-of-towner probably wouldn’t notice anything amiss at all. Griffiths states that economists who research this kind of thing believe that about a quarter of all government workers are actually “pseudo-workers”, who show up for the paycheque but do little or no meaningful work. (Of course, it isn’t hard to imagine that this estimate might be on the low side).

But the numbers in corporate bureaucracies are likely to be sizeable also. Then there are jobs which are completely unnecessary – like tax law and accounting, which produce nothing of net social benefit and would cease to exist if governments rationalized the tax code. Or the “work” being done in the justice system, where it takes 5 times as long to get a homicide conviction as it did 50 years ago, with no noticeable improvement in accuracy. The education system meanwhile churns out half-educated high school “graduates;” what is the productivity of a teacher whose students leave school as functional illiterates? Many of the better grads go on to fill up the institutes of higher employment-avoidance, er, sorry, higher learning and acquire degrees which they never apply. If the economic value of extra degrees in unnecessary subjects is nil, then so is the productivity of the professors who produce this surplus. Add in the economic value of Wall Street, now believed by many to be close to zero (as are ancillary activities like financial regulation and risk management). And all the non-work being performed in subsidized industries all around the world, producing products nobody wants – at least in the sense of being willing to pay for them.

The reality is that the number of people really needed to produce the goods and services we consume is not that great. Take away the young, the old, students, pseudo-workers, the semi-productive, people in useless jobs or doing busywork, the “officially unemployed” (really just the tip of the iceberg of the non-producing sector) – and there’s not a lot left to make up the numbers of the truly productive. The problem is that to acknowledge this by action – i.e. canning the unproductive and terminating their useless activities – could have a major negative impact on demand. The leisure society envisioned by yesterday’s dreamers had one major flaw: how to distribute the wealth. We have solved this by creating a system of fake work on a large scale, under a variety of pretexts, to soak up what would otherwise be massive unemployment. A Keynesian Ponzi scheme that continues to run and run.