Everyone wants more leisure time – but is that possible?

One of the effects of the pandemic is that everyone wants to work less – whether from home or in the office. But is that possible over the long term?

In 1963, a new fund was launched – the Invest in Leisure Unit Trust. Life, its managers reckoned, was on the edge of getting a whole lot better: working hours were getting shorter and “society more affluent”. The result would be fast-rising spending on leisure goods and activities and “correspondingly higher profits” for companies offering them. 

Lovely. I have no idea what happened to the fund (on this rare occasion Google has nothing to say), but I suspect it was a bit early. Sixty years on and the lives of leisure its backers envisioned seem to be here. In the last few years, says the Financial Times, “millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic” have left the workforce. For some it is the Great Resignation – they want a more satisfying (or easier) job. For others it is the Great Retirement – they don’t want better jobs, they want no jobs.

But this isn’t just about those who leave wanting to do less. It is about those staying wanting to do less too – working fewer hours, mostly from home, and as and when they choose. It’s also about people doing that whether employers sanction it or not. 

On Amazon you can buy a “mouse jiggler” which simulates mouse movements to stop your computer from going to sleep, so you can work from home, without actually, you know, working. This isn’t equally effective for everyone (you can’t fake an editor’s letter with a mouse jiggler) but you get the idea: the paths to leisure are varied but everyone’s trying to get on one.

The question then is whether they will manage long term. Not all employers are mad for home or even hybrid working. Those who get it can expect more surveillance (and everyone now knows about the jigglers). It may come with nasty long-term consequences for the ambitious anyway (public hard work is more important than just hard work). Offices are less out of date than you think. And what of those who have decided to retire? Many will have come to that decision via a satisfied glance at their defined-contribution pension, which even if only adequately managed, will have soared in value in the last 18 months. But what goes up often comes down.

Right now many markets – in particular the US markets that many pension funds will be heavily exposed to – are at eye-watering valuations. So many people who think they have enough capital to live on may soon find they do not (particularly given rising lifespans). Perhaps in two years the Great Retirement will have become the Great Job Hunt.

On the plus side, not everything is overpriced. In this week's magazine we look at the cheap supermarkets in the EU and at home. Average global valuations are silly high, but a solid retailer of essentials on a price/earnings ratio of 13? More silly low. 

The same might go for the big miners now their dividends are back. There are some cheap bets in emerging markets; a year ago China looked uninvestable, but as prices fall to reflect the risks of betting on communist-supervised capitalism, it is getting more tempting. Much the same goes for Russia. A few years ago prices were low enough to discount the full return of communism. Today they aren’t quite high enough to reflect its influence over the global energy market. A life of leisure is a wonderful thing – but if you are financing from an investment portfolio, make sure it’s a properly diversified one.

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