Do you ever get the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we live?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite happy with my life.
But between the dismal statistics about American life expectancy and visits with people who are suffering from one stress or another, I start to wonder whether there is a fundamental change that would improve our quality of life.
Something that would end the dominance of work.
Yes, I know. Today, work is glorified. It is the 24/7 deity.
But it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, work was supposed to be pretty much over by now. That’s what economist John Maynard Keynes anticipated in his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”
Keynes thought that so much capital and technical improvement would accumulate by today that we’d be working only two days a week. Hello, five-day weekends.
It didn’t happen. At least not for us. Indeed, while working hours have been reduced some in Europe, Americans now work longer hours than we did half a century ago.
That’s why I read Juliet B. Schor’s True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy. Originally published as Plenitude in 2010, the book looks for ways to relieve the problems she saw in two earlier books, The Overspent American oath The Overworked American.
Her solution, in a nutshell, is to do what Keynes anticipated: shorten the workweek. This would give people time to do things at home and in our communities.
She sums up the problem this way.
“Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives. They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.”
In his 1970 book The Harried Leisure Class, economist Staffan B. Linder examined the relationship between productivity and how much time is used up in consumption. Just as Keynes saw a limit to time at work, Linder saw that we can’t produce immense bounty and also have the time to consume it.
So time at work is self-limiting.
You can read my column about this here. Or you can read his book here.
Schor’s perspective differs from the conventional wisdom in a big way. She sees working less in the market economy as a big economic opportunity. She doesn’t see it as a terrible economic loss.
How can that be?
Simple. Lots of productive things happen without exchange of money. We can be productive in the economy of our homes and communities — as we are now, but more so if we spend less time at work. The same change, she believes, would also create a more diversified, less fragile economy.
The non-money economy is rarely considered by conventional economists, politicians and policymakers because it does not involve cash changing hands. But it makes a big difference to real people in real life.
Is this an academic, pie-in-the-sky notion?
I don’t think so.
If we start from Schor’s broader view of economic activity, our economy would look very different. We’d include the multitude of things not counted, like all the work we do assembling things we’ve purchased, home gardens, home cooking instead of fast food meals, etc. And we’d subtract things that are negative rather than adding them. (Think: Do prisons really contribute to GDP?)
But the operative word here is “could.”
We’ve had triumphant, manic predictions about a return to independent, simple living for at least a century. All were premature. Here are some examples.
In the early 1990s, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez published the first edition of Your Money or Your Life, a book that showed the way we could win personal time by living simply. The book has become a founding document of the FIRE movement, which stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early.”
In the early 1970s, an analyst at Rand Corp., Duane Elgin, declared that Voluntary Simplicity was a fast-growing subculture. Those who chose lives of voluntary simplicity avoided status-seeking purchases, did much for themselves and lived simpler lives with more time and less money.
In 1920s and 1930s, agrarian economist Ralph Borsodi observed that the corporate mark-up on almost everything was a major incentive for people to do things for themselves. Then, as now, there was an active discussion about urban vegetable gardens. In broader reading on that topic, I found an article discussing the ease of farming snails in small urban spaces.
OK, I know. It’s just a baby step from sublime to ridiculous.
But the dominant fact is that the move to voluntary simplicity has yet to happen. Instead, we’re addicted to wealth. Rich, poor or in between, we’re stuck on the notion that having more money will bring free time, life satisfaction and happiness.
I wonder if we’re even capable of figuring out that it just isn’t so.