Consume More or Work Less?

Rethinking attitudes to work is central to the way many participants in the Simplicity Movement approach simple living.[1] Charles Siegel poses the critical question: ‘Should we take advantage of our increasing productivity to consume more or to have more free time?’[2] If people keep raising their material standard of living every time they come into more money – through a pay rise, for example, or through some new technology which increases productivity per hour – working hours will never decrease and may even rise. Indeed, many Westerners, especially North Americans, Britons, and Australians, are working longer hours today than they were in the 1970s, despite being considerably more productive.[3] Generally speaking, they have directed all their wealth and productivity gains into consuming more and have not taken any of those gains in terms of increased free time. But why, one might ask, should people always be working for more consumer products and services and not sometimes be content with less? Why should people not accept a lower material standard of living (e.g. old clothes, smaller house, no car, no luxury travel, etc.) and work half as much? Who can say what wonders such a cultural style might not bring!

Thoreau’s opinion on working hours seems to exemplify the perspective widely held among participants in the Simplicity Movement:

Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. … I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well.[4]

The basic idea here is that if people can embrace simple living and stop the upward creep of material desire, they can take some or all of their pay rises or productivity gains, not in terms of more consumption, but in terms of more free time. And this raises the questions: Are we forced by the ‘curse of labour’ to work so much? Or are we freer than we think we are? The Simplicity Movement is an example of a social movement where people are enjoying the benefits of exchanging money and consumption for more free time.

For a related (and somewhat overlapping) post on ‘Take Back Your Time Day,’ click here.

For more on Thoreau’s views on working hours, click here.

[1] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) Chap. 10.

[2] See Charles Siegel, The Politics of Simple Living (2008).

[3] See generally, John De Graaf (ed), Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (2003); Hamilton and Dennis, above n 1, Chap. 6.

[4] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Life without Principle,’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 636.

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