The Coming Leisure Society: What if Money Didn’t Matter?

Leisure SocietyImagine you lived in a perfect society where you had enough food, clothing and shelter so you didn’t need to struggle to make a living. You’d have access to education, entertainment and a reasonable amount of goods and services. You’d be comfortable, but not rich in the conventional sense. If all your immediate needs were met and you didn’t have to work many hours, what would you do with your time?

This might seem like a pointless question to ask, but I believe it is a critical one of the 21st Century.

The Leisure Society

Back in 1930, during the great depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about a coming age of leisure and abundance.

I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge.

Keynes was predicting that it would be possible to get to 15 hour workweeks by 2030 just from slow gradual improvements in productivity. After 83 years, it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress towards that age of leisure, however, I feel that is more a result of our own individual choices, not any real economic limitations.

In terms of productivity, there is little reason why we don’t have 15 hour workweeks now. We all know how compound interest works. Interest on interest can build up to a fortune over time. The same goes for productivity. With only a 2% productivity improvement per year, it would take about 35 years to double productivity. With a doubling in productivity, we could all potentially work half as much.

After a hundred years of 2% productivity growth, we would be more than seven times as productive. That means we could produce seven times as much, or we could produce the same amount in 1/7th the time.  Due to declining productivity in recent decades, we haven’t quite kept up with the 2% rate on average, however, we’ve still made massive progress. 15 hour workweeks should be possible, given what we have accomplished.

Why Don’t We Have 15 Hour Workweeks?

The math makes sense. We should all be in an age of leisure of abundance, yet we continue to work many hours with long commutes, in jobs that most of us don’t particularly like.

The problem is that most of us tend to value consumption of goods and services more than extra leisure time. Apparently, bigger houses, newer cars and more possessions are more important to us than the time to do what we truly enjoy.

We believe that buying stuff for our families is better than spending time with them. We’ve grown to value shopping and watching TV more than time spent on our own hobbies, interests and dreams. We don’t live in communities, we live in markets. We are not citizens, we are consumers.

Another barrier to shorter workweeks is the growing problem of income inequality, particularly in countries like the US where the rich are getting fabulously richer. If wealth were more equitable distributed, like it is in many European countries and Japan,  we could have shorter workweeks and more time for maternity and sick leave, not to mention universal health care and subsidized education.

The US is the obvious outlier. While the rest of the world, including China, is striving to improve the well-being of their citizens, the US is still preoccupied with corporate profits and GDP growth.

Progress Towards the Age of Leisure

We’ve certainly made progress on reducing our work loads. Legislation to cut back work to 40 hours a week, the banning of child labour in advanced countries and mandatory schooling, all combined to drastically curtail the estimated 3200 hour workweeks found early in the industrial revolution.

More forward looking countries have managed to improve working conditions in recent years as well. The Netherlands appears to be the first country to get below 30 average working hours per week. Also, John Quiggen reports that,

Germany’s work hours declined from 2,387 hours annually in 1950 to 1,408 in 2010. France’s declined from 2,241 hours annually in 1950 to 1,552 in 2010.

It’s clear that better working and living conditions are possible, if we had the political will to follow through. It’d require a re-evaluation of priorities at all levels of society. We’d have to change our notions of people as workforces, to people as citizens. We’d need to properly value unpaid activities like parenting, community service, volunteering and civic responsibility. It’d also require a shift in our personal priorities from consumption, television and work, to more time spent with family and friends, in our communities, on global contribution and on non-monetary personal pursuits.

It seems silly to suggest that we rather spend time in front of TVs and computers or in shopping malls, rather than with people we care about. Yet, this is precisely what we choose as a modern societies. I can’t help but think it’s a form of psychopathy. Is consumerism making us insane? Take a test here to see how you fare.

Our World of Abundance and Opportunity

When I talk or write about the great abundance we have in our lives now, I often get disagreements based on the substantial problems the world is facing. There are still about 2 billion people that live in abject poverty, almost a billion of those don’t have access to clean drinking water. There are tens of millions of refugees without a country to call home. The global sex trade is a multi-billion dollar industry. Millions of children die every year for lack of vaccines that cost as little as $5. Clearly there are problems.

However, for those of us able to read this blog post, life is pretty damn good. It may be hard to imagine what it would’ve been like in the early 1900’s, but try to consider a life without indoor plumbing, no electricity, no TVs, no refrigerators, no washing machines, no computers, no smart-phones, no internet, few opportunities for international travel, primitive dentistry and barbaric medical practices by today’s standards.

Life has become drastically better no matter how you measure it. Work is safer and physically less demanding. We have vastly more choice in terms of occupations, hobbies, travel, food, friendships, culture and anything else we can imagine. Average lifespans more than doubled in the 20th century, so by that measure alone, our lives are fantastically better.

Scarcity Still Lives

Despite this abundance, most of us choose a level of consumption that keeps us working long hours in jobs we don’t particularly like, just to pay for it all. It’s form of self-imposed slavery. There are certainly cases of predatory banking and credit card practices that practically bully low-income people into debt, but for the most part we voluntarily put ourselves into this situation by buying more stuff. As a society we put ourselves into debt servitude.

I’ve recently heard that as many as 40% of Canadians live paycheque to paycheque. (Yes, I am Canadian). 🙂 We work to pay for the car that primarily serves to get us to work. How much of our monthly salaries go towards the clothes, food, coffee, snacks, etc. that we buy only because we work?  Better paid jobs, encourage us to buy ever larger houses and more possessions, requiring us to work more to pay for it.

Does maximizing the quality of our lives equal maximizing consumption? I don’t think many would answer yes to that question, yet it is precisely how we choose to live. Individuals focus on their next big purchase. Corporations look for profit growth. Nations obsess over GDP growth.

The things that should matter get neglected. Our own health, the well-being of the world’s poorest, our water and food supplies, our air, our natural environment, wild animals, the safety of our communities, basically, everything that truly adds value to life, gets trampled on the race to ever more consumption and profits.

We are like a snake eating our own tail. Collectively, we are insane.

Do you want a Three-Day Workweek?

If you could consume 20% percent less, to work 20% fewer hours, would you choose to do so?

It might mean getting rid of your car, renting a smaller apartment rather than buying a big house in the suburbs, cutting out cable TV, eating out less often, making coffee in the morning rather than going to a cafe, etc. Would you make those minor sacrifices for an extra day-off every week?

I don’t think it’s very hard for most people in richer countries to reduce their expenses by 20%. My wife and I have managed to cut back our living costs by about 75% and we are much happier for it.

Is a four-day workweek worth 20% less consumption? Is a three-day workweek worth cutting back consumption 40%?

The things we buy decide the life we live. A $60,000 car equals three years of travel for my wife and I. A $2,500 mortgage payment are two return flights to Asia, Europe or South America. A hundred dollar bottle of wine is a week of dining out in Chiang Mai.

What Would You Do with the Extra Time?

Shorter workweeks are certainly possible. I’ve met hundreds of people proving it. The important question is, What would you do with the extra time?

Would you watch more TV? Would you spend more time at the shopping mall? Would you be bored because you had too much free time?

Or, would you spend more time with family and friends? Would you spend more time volunteering? Would you write a book? Would you create art? Would you start a business?

What would you do with an extra 10 or 20 hours per week?

Why aren’t you doing that now?

Here’s a great recording by Alan Watts,

What would you like to do if money were no object?

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

29 Responses to The Coming Leisure Society: What if Money Didn’t Matter?

  1. Totally agree and resonate with this post.

    It’s very very true. It amazes me how much some people I know work: 60-70 hours a week of labor. Not for a year or two either; for thirty!

    Why? for a half-million dollar house? A 50K truck? Tons of consumer goods?

    I don’t get it myself but at the same time, I was heading down that path. It’s the only path I knew.

    Hopefully this posts wakes at least one more person up to the possibility of a different lifestyle.

    For me, there’s no one thing I would do. I would learn more, work out more, create more entrepreneurial projects, spend more time with family and friends – and so forth…

    Maybe I’d figure out ways to create even more free time. 🙂

    • John says:

      Thanks Matt,

      I was going down that path as well. It took moving to the other side of the world to really wake me up to what is possible.

      We have such a short time on this planet. It’s too bad that so many people spend it in that vicious circle of working and consuming.

      Talk to you soon!

  2. David Hall says:

    Wordsworth said much the same thing two centuries ago-“getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” Thoreau aptly said-“a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Perhaps the Lord put it best when He is recorded to have said-“Beware of covetousness, for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

  3. Ellen says:

    An interesting post John. Have you read anything from Charles Handy? He also talks about this topic in some of his books.

    I left the 60 hour work week at the end of last year in order to take more time back and get some health issues under control. I’ve used the time to do yoga, write my personal travel blog, start another blog using my professional experience (I’m a work psychologist, hence my interest in this topic!), and travel and meet interesting people. Now I’ve decided on another year, I’m hoping to learn some Thai and have other projects in the pipeline too.

    One of the problems I think that society has with this topic is that ‘hard work’ and by that, we often mean a long hours culture, is seen as ‘good’. Many people would look at the 30 hour work week of the Netherlands and see this somehow as a negative. So the change is as much in mindset as in action.

    Thanks for blogging on this thought provoking topic.

    • John says:

      Hi Ellen,

      I read Charles Handy’s The Age of Unreason a long, long time ago but don’t recall anything from it. I’ll have to check out some of his books again.

      I agree that many still have the idea that long hours and hard work are good. I think this mentality served us well before and after WWII when we were ramping up industrial and consumer output. However, I think we’ve grown out of that industrial age economy, we just don’t know it yet.

      Working hard is not necessarily bad. We want our teachers, doctors, artists, civic engineers, scientists, garbage collectors, etc. all working long hours to continue to create value for society. It’s all the useless materialistic and excessively menial jobs that we can start to eliminate. So much of our economy is destructive (Fast food, tobacco, soft drinks, recreational vehicles, home decor, etc.). It’s that work and consumption that needs to be cut back.

      It’s going to happen whether we comprehend it or not. The reduction in output will happen out of economic necessity. I believe it’s already started, the bankruptcy of Detroit and other cities and states in the US is only the beginning. With increasing automation, outsourcing and technologies like 3D printing, we are going to see larger percentages of our labour force permanently unemployed.

      Forward thinking countries will combat the reduced need for low skilled labour by subsidizing lower income workers. Germany has already been doing this with it’s work-share programs where corporations reduce hours rather than layoff workers. The US seems to prefer crime and suffering to income equality so I think they are in for a whole lot of social unrest.

      Thanks for continuing the conversation!

  4. Jan Logjes says:

    Interesting angle again John. As someone from the Netherlands I want to add that this nr of hours is mostly because of parttime jobs created for woman with children. We have one of the lowest participation of labour by women in the world, after Somalia I thought (no joke). so the ethos of working hard is still very alive with most Dutch men. I am still the only one I know of, that choose to work 32 hours just because I wanted to have more time for other stuff. Collegues didnt get it and didnt want to loose the income. For sure, if you compare our 40 hour workweek or common 36 hour week and average of 5 weeks payed leave a year to that gruesome worklife of US citizens, we are on the right track!

    • John says:

      Hi Jan,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m sure averages disguise a lot of the realities, however, I found the Netherlands to be one of the most forward thinking countries in the world.

      In the US and Canada, people still debate whether climate change is real, (not to mention evolution.)

      The Netherlands knows that environmental issues are serious and are doing something about it. Also, the social welfare system is much more comprehensive and egalitarian. Dutch people think different. I love the attitude and culture there.

      Are you not seeing the share buttons on the left side of the screen? They should be there.

  5. Jan Logjes says:

    And John, for Buddhas sake add some sharebuttons already! You make it hard for us to share your great content 🙂

  6. Andras Sallai says:

    Hey John, thanks for the interesting post. I mostly agree that the work week is too long, but I think that we have a need to work and the amount of hours someone “needs” is different for everyone.

    About a year ago I saw a video somewhere about some third world communities that were rejecting western methods and corporations in favor of local self sufficiency. I don’t remember the title or source of the video nor do I remember a lot of the content except that the focus of the story was that people were happier because of self satisfaction derived from the work they did and from working together toward the betterment of their own community. Since I saw this video I’ve thought a lot about work and I’ve come to believe that humans are “wired to work”. I’m not an anthropologist or evolutionary biologist but it seems obvious to me that we have a biologically-programmed need to work. Like the guy who lives a couple doors down from my parents, who has been retired from his job for 10 years or more, but spends many hours a day walking the neighborhood picking empty bottles and cans for recycling. He doesn’t need the money but he does it to keep busy.

    I believe there are many people who spend long hours at work, not because they are forced to, but because they have a need to keep their minds occupied with some kind of menial task for extended periods of time. Humans evolved, in the past, toiling away gathering food, making tools, building shelters – and although the type of work we do has changed over time, I don’t think we’ve lost this need to do “stuff” to keep busy.

    So, as attractive as it sounds to me (i’m all for it), I don’t think that a 15 hour work week would suit everyone. Sure, having the option (if it would be financially feasible) to be able to get by on so few hours would be great, but I think everyone is different and I don’t believe that everyone who works really long hours does so solely for the money – don’t forget the people who are addicted to work or the people who avoid their families or to avoid problems in their lives outside of work.

    • John says:

      Greetings Andras,

      Thanks for the great comment. I love your examples.

      I completely agree with you here. There probably is a natural predisposition to keep busy. However, I think we continue to have increasing amounts of choice about how to spend our time.

      A lot of work can be very rewarding and fulfilling. There is also a lot of ‘work’ that goes unpaid such as parenting, housework, personal cooking, volunteering, blogging, etc. That work will never go away. However, I don’t think this was the type of work that Keynes had in mind when he wrote his essay in 1930.

      Housework, exercise, writing, starting a charity or volunteering might still be called ‘work’ by some, but the difference is that it won’t be out of economic necessity. In 1930, in the depths of the great depression, no job meant you didn’t eat. Long hours of work were necessary just to survive. We have it much, much better now and I believe it will continue to improve, barring any environmental collapse, war or societal revolution. (Which seem very likely in upcoming decades unless we collectively change our ways.)

      Also, not working, doesn’t equate to watching TV or sitting around doing nothing. Ideally, the leisure society will free up our time to do what we most value. For many that will mean volunteering, learning, writing, starting businesses, exercising, parenting, taking care of elders, etc. I spend many hours ‘working’ every week on this blog and on other writing projects, but I wouldn’t call it work.

      I believe the key issue is that as our economies get more productive and affluent, less time needs to be spent earning a salary. If our basic needs and a comfortable level of wants are provided with a minimum amount of salaried labour, I think it makes sense that most of us will chose to re-allocate our time to other activities.

      I believe more people will garden because they want healthy, local, natural vegetables and physical activity is very rewarding. More people will chose to home-school because they want to spend more time with their children and because they want to offer higher quality, customized education. More people will start charities, blog, do art, volunteer and many more activities that all take time, but probably don’t fit the punch clock idea of ‘work.’

      In the third world community example you gave, they were not working in the corporate sense of the word. They spent their time on activities that brought their community closer together. They were investing in their families and communities. I don’t consider that work. The equivalent in a modern society would be civic engagement or community volunteering.

      I think the problem with your parent’s neighbour is that he is lonely and probably doesn’t feel needed. He collects bottles because there is so little community and culture in our societies. People don’t know their neighbours and they don’t really want to either. In a tribal village in the third world, he would be a valued member of the community and be respected as an elder. That doesn’t happen in our so called advanced society. Another issue is that he is older. He grew up in a time of economic scarcity so he’s been hard-wired to believe that continuous work is necessary for survival. I believe that as younger generations reach retirement age, they will have been exposed to many more options and will likely be active volunteers, take up art projects, publish blogs and books, upload videos, travel, etc. I certainly hope to be intellectually busy and contributing to society well into my 80s. Retirement is an industrial age anachronism.

      Your last examples of being addicted to work or wanting to avoid family members or other problems are a little different. I think we are primarily motivated to fill emotional or biological needs. Being addicted to work, is probably connected to status seeking and the need to be better than peers. I think that stems from a lack of self-esteem. Alain de Botton half-jokingly said that when a person buys an expensive car they are just looking to be loved.

      Working to avoid family or problems, are also likely caused by a lack of self-worth. That’s precisely the problem I think the leisure age is meant to address. In consumer societies, we look to material goods to bring us happiness, but it doesn’t work. As we wake up to that fact, we’ll start to spend more of our time with family, in our communities, on meaningful projects and on contributing to others.

      Those activities take up a lot of time, and some might call it work. However, I feel that’s what it means to live a fulfilling, rich life. It’s not the same as sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen, doing work that you dislike, for a corporation you don’t respect. That’s the work I think most of us would prefer to drastically reduce.

  7. Great post, John —

    I’m pretty much on the same page as you. I only wish I would have realized so much of this when I was your age. Much of this same kind of thought process is what motivated me to start my Living Free blog 5 1/2 years ago. It also motivated me to downsize, eliminate a fixed location residence, finally, FINALLY change my thinking about “work” and make work part of my lifestyle rather than have to fit my lifestyle into my work schedule.

    While I agree with Andras’ idea of humans being wired for work, Part of that is definitely instinctive from our hunting/gathering survival days – “no work, no eat.” And that was obviously reinforced during our agrarian society. Add to that the industrialization of the developed world and work became ingrained in most of us.

    I certainly know that my father, who grew up during the depression years, was a hard worker. He worked two jobs most of his life, plus all the house maintenance and yard work that I was taught to do when I became old enough (coming of age in the industrial age). But, I look at modern lifestyles of young people and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to be starting my life all over again looking forward to working and commuting as many hours, under the stress and the demands to keep up with technology advancing faster than we can think in some cases. Even my entrepreneurial life was a better deal in my opinion.

    We need to create and transition into a new life where work is part of the lifestyle and not have to fit some kind of lifestyle into whatever time is left over after all the work commitments.

    Back in the later 1980’s I found and read a book titled “Working Free: Practical Alternatives to the 9-5 Job” by John Applegath. The book is long out of print and only available used. I searched for 20 years to locate John Applegath and finally met up with him in Durham, Massachusetts about six years ago. His book affirmed what I believed about work, but it still took me about another 20 years from the time I read it until I finally began to truly implement it in my own life.

    You are so right about our industrial age conditioning. While I was in college and especially while I was completing my masters degree, I made the absolute decision to follow an entrepreneurial career path. I had been entrepreneurial since I was 12, but I made the absolute commitment when I was about 23. My reasoning was that I was too lazy to conform to the rigors of someone else’s schedule and rules for my life. So, as an entrepreneur I traded the 40 hour, 5 day work week of working for someone else for a 60-80 hour 6-7 day work week – I created my own form of servitude. And, when I had 25 – 30 employees, I found myself in servitude to them to make sure I could always pay their wages. Nearly four years in the Air Force during Vietnam (stationed mainly in Washington, DC) helped drive home the industrial age model and conformity to me.

    Currently, I’m location independent, stay with friends, couch surf and travel in “My McVansion” a, van I converted to travel and live in on the road primarily in the U.S. I do a variety of freelance writing and audio recording projects (my primary profession for 50 years) to generate some extra income. Otherwise, I blog, work on writing some books, study people and enjoy sharing the living free lifestyle – something akin to your concept of The Age of Leisure – with anyone interested in getting out of the “rut” and living rather than working their life away. I discuss values, i.e. money and trading massive amounts of life and time for money and “stuff” as opposed to finding ways to maximize their precious time on doing things they love and enjoy.

    So, I appreciate your philosophies. While I don’t agree 100% all the time with some of your ideas, we’re still pretty much on the same wavelength. And, besides we need some diversity of thought and philosophy or life would be boring and there’d be nothing to discuss. You’re wise beyond most of your peers and I hope you can reach lots more of them before their lives are gone in conforming servitude to the gods of “Consumerism,” “Materialism” and “Status.”

    I’m going to use some of your ideas in a blog post along with a link to your post for those of my readers who want more. I already have you on my blog roll.

    Enthusiastically,
    Ed

    • John says:

      Greetings Ed,

      Thanks for the thoughtful and kind comment.

      It sounds like you have created a great life for yourself.

      I think the biggest problem is that we’ve all been conditioned to believe the ‘greed is good’ mentality. We don’t even consider that there might be better ways to live our lives.

      Compounding the problem is that disagreements with the economic growth model of society usually come from fringe extremists that don’t have any workable alternatives. Getting stoned on hippie communes or harmonizing our positive thoughts are not going to solve the world’s problems. 🙂

      Please let me know when you disagree with me. Those are my favourite comments. Disagreement means that either I’m wrong and I need to alter my thinking. Or, it means I’m not explaining my ideas clearly. Either way, they are both great learning opportunities.

      I hope to hear from you again soon!

  8. Pascal says:

    Totally agree!
    It’s mindboggling to mee seing people work 40 hours a week and then they have nothing to show for it because they blow it all on … stuff. Personally I spend money on food, rent, paying the bills and educating myself. That’s about it. I try to save most of my income and put it away. Having enough money in the bank to last me a year gives me a great sense of freedom and stability. So I can’t understand why most people choose living paycheck to paycheck. Living this way you’re not free and totally dependent on your employer, espcially if you only work for one boss like most people.

    • John says:

      Thanks again Pascal,

      I believe we are all biologically programmed to buy as much as we can. It’s a signalling trait to attract mates, ward of competitors and impress peers.

      The problem of course, is that it’s very superficial and doesn’t really work. Anyone can wear nice clothes and buy a fancy car if they’re wiling to become a debt slave.

      I think being able to see beyond materialism is a form of enlightenment and higher wisdom. Unfortunately, most of society isn’t there yet.

  9. Joe Mobley says:

    John,

    I see there are many things in the world that do not sit well with you. I am in admiration of your actually taking actions on the issues that are an interest and concern to you.

    I am probably in the minority here in that I find a huge amount of ambiguity and contradiction with the ideas presented in the post. I would be interested in bringing up some of these if you, and the others here would like the discussion.

    Let me bring up one item here and we can move forward if you wish.

    I just finished a Tony Robbins video in which he stated that “language shapes your emotions.” Let me suggest that the “The Leisure Society” would actually be “The Idle Society.” Totally different feel. And a little bit closer to the truth, I think.

    I can just see a bunch of 15-hour guys and girls down at the local tavern, on Wednesday… complaining about how hard work is. You get the idea.

    I would probably benefit from the exercise by getting a chance to better define some of my thoughts on the subject as I have not explored them in depth.

    In any event, please do not regard my disagreement as disrespect. I wish you and yours…

    All the best,

    Joe Mobley

    • John says:

      Greetings Joe,

      Thanks for the comment. I love discussions so please don’t be afraid to put forward your ideas. I’m trying to understand these ideas better myself so if you have contrarian opinions, please share!

      I also want to better understand and articulate these ideas, so I would love to continue the discussion.

      Here goes…

      Like Andras introduced earlier, I think a key issue for this discussion is the definition of ‘work’.

      If work is defined as a job we primarily do to earn an income and don’t particularly enjoy, then I think it’s safe to assume that most of us would prefer to minimize those hours.

      Andras also pointed out that boring, menial work can be enjoyable and I don’t disagree with that. However, I have to believe that in this age of opportunity and abundance, most people would prefer to do productive activities that are more personally rewarding than just passing the time with busy work. (For example, people would rather volunteer in their community versus working in a fast food restaurant if the financial freedom was there.)

      Keynes’ argument is less about the quality of the work and more about the productivity per man hour. If we are working only to survive, then we don’t need to work 40-hour work weeks any longer. Our basic needs of food, clothing and shelter can be easily met with 15-hour work weeks.

      I believe the goal of life should be to maximize our collective well-being. Spending long hours in cubicles or on factory assembly lines, having long commutes, eating largely processed foods and nutrient deficient produce, living in culturally devoid suburbs, and all the trash, pollution and stress associated with that modern lifestyle is certainly not in the interests of our well being. Despite our wealth and breadth of choices, we are more obese, depressed and stressed than ever.

      Also, I want to point out that the extreme lifestyles of Americans and Canadians are very unique. Most of the world puts a lot more value into family, leisure time, community, tradition, culture and civic responsibility. That is why I love Europe and Asia so much. 🙂

      I think your argument here is that less ‘work’ would make us idle. The assumption being that watching TV and drinking beer at the pub is worse than working.

      I think I probably agree with that. If we all had more free time and we all chose to do useless activities with that time, then lots of hours of even boring, menial work is a better alternative. It would most certainly lower the crime rate.

      If that is the case, then a secondary assumption is that most people aren’t capable of making effective choices for their own well being and need employers to tell them what to do with their time. This may be in fact true, but I don’t want to believe it. 🙂

      I’m making a different assumption. If extra free time was used to spend more time with our family and friends, volunteer more, work on our passions more, get involved in our communities more, then it could be a major benefit to society.

      With shorter work weeks we wouldn’t be able to consume as much, but I think that’s a good thing. We’d consume less and waste less. We’d drive less. We’d have smaller houses. We’d have more personal gardens. We’d spend more time in our communities. All of those things would make us healthier and happier.

      There is a definite shift in this direction but it’s small only a small percentage of the younger population.

      Clay Shirky made the observation that TV sit coms are the modern equivalent of the gin carts in the industrial revolution.

      Factories had gin carts to keep workers drunk so they could cope with the monotony of the shift to the industrial age.

      Now, we watch TV after work to numb our brains as a coping mechanism for largely meaningless work and stressful lifestyles we have now. I don’t think it has to be that way.

      I didn’t sell my business to watch more TV and drink more beer. I did it so that I could do more meaningful activities (some might call it work, but I don’t), be healthier, spend more time with family and friends, contribute more.

      I’ve said it many times before, there isn’t a day that my wife and I aren’t incredibly thankful for the quality of life we now enjoy. We don’t have to go to a job, but we definitely don’t spend our time in pubs complaining about the work we do, either. 🙂 We have a lot more free time, but it’s not spent idle.

      Thanks for continuing the discussion!

      • Joe Mobley says:

        Hey John,

        Let me ask you, what “outcome” are looking for? I’m reading a lot of “if we do more of this or less of that then things would be better”. But, if John could wave his magic wand, what would the results look like?

        I have a couple of thoughts but I want to make sure I’m heading in the right direction before I start rambling.

        Joe Mobley

        • John says:

          Hi Joe,

          In this article, I’m not looking for any outcome. I’ve already created this lifestyle for myself. I’ve also seen hundreds of others do it as well. I know that low hour workweeks are possible and that they can lead to greater personal fulfilment and satisfaction for the right people.

          This article was primarily to highlight the productivity argument. Basically, with a doubling in income we can choose to consume twice as much, or we can choose to work half as much. Since World War II, we’ve overwhelmingly chosen to consume more. I want to make it clear that we have other options what to do with that increasing income and productivity.

          In fact, I think we all have to take responsibility for designing our own lifestyles because the idea of traditional, life-long employment no longer exists. Most of western society still has a very industrial age mentality of what work and life are. Those ideas are dying fast.

          Based on productivity, most people in developed countries can ‘work’ much less hours. They just have to decide to consume less.

          Many westerners think this is about sacrifice, but I disagree. I think simpler living enriches lives. It’s about spending time on what we value most, not working to pay debts.

          For example, would the average parent trade a 25% reduction in house size for an extra day or two a month with their children? How about giving up a $80,000 vehicle for a $30,000 one if it gave them an extra two weeks of vacation time per year? Those choices are available now.

          I agree with your idea that not everyone would benefit from 15 hour workweeks because they may very well need someone to tell them what to do. However, I don’t think I’m one of those people.

          On a societal level, a positive outcome I’d like to see is a return to community values like seen in South America, Asia and many parts of Europe. Most people in the rest of the world seem quite willing to accept less income and materialism for a better quality of life.

          I’d love to see a shift away from car centric lifestyles to walkable communities where people actually meet and see their neighbours. I’d like to see independently owned local cafes, restaurants, bakeries and grocers that are in walking distance in neighbourhoods full of parks, trees and nature.

          I’d also love to see a shift away from processed, nutrient deficient foods, to locally grown, natural and healthy choices.

          Less consumer waste and pollution would also be positive outcomes.

  10. Joe Mobley says:

    John,

    I have had an unusually difficult time responding to this post. Interestingly, I have just started a re-re-read of the 4-Hour-Workweek by Tim Ferriss.

    You, me, Tim and many others have discovered the benefits of lifestyle design. The increased income, free time and overall improved quality of life is well worth the effort. You had mentioned that you have already created this lifestyle for yourself. However, I do think that we are in the minority.

    I forgot who said it but “one of the benefits of being rich is that you can afford your time.” Unfortunately, broke people and people just getting by can not. Thus, I still think that for a huge majority of people, leisure time would be idle time if they only had a 15 hour workweek.

    I fundamentally disagree with the idea that giving a person extra time will make them want to pursue some of the endeavors you mentioned. (Holy run-on sentence Batman!)

    If an individual is not willing to adjust his (or her) lifestyle to add just 1 hour of time to spend with their family, for example, I have NO interest giving them ANY of my time, money, etc. so they can have a 15 hour workweek.

    You, me and Tim Ferriss know that a lower-hour, higher productivity work week is possible. We also know that the personal-fulfilment factor can be raised substantially with some lifestyle tweaking.

    I am willing to spread the gospel of Timothy (Ferriss) to those who want to hear it. I am not optimistic that an increased-productivity lifestyle will lead to a lower consumption life.

    To be continued?…

    Joe Mobley

    • John says:

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for continuing the discussion.

      I guess, the issue now is whether or not the majority of people would do good things with the extra free time.

      I have another post on this coming soon, however, I’ll briefly summarize my views here.

      Structural unemployment is increasing and I believe it will continue to increase with more automation, outsourcing, 3D printing, abundant alternative energy, etc. We simply do not need this many people working any more. Cities like Detroit are perfect evidence of that.

      As a society, we have to decide what to do with the underemployed. Countries like Germany have lowered work hours in some sectors to keep more people employed.

      I believe the decimation of the US and Canada manufacturing sectors will be coming to white collar jobs next.

      Humans may need to work for self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction, but our physical labour is becoming less and less needed. We want our doctors, teachers, and plumbers working long hours, but most of the work that is being done now can be better done through automation.

      It is my contention that working for a living will be an anachronism in two or three decades.

      • I love the ideas shared in this post!

        My wife and I made the trade of less consumerism for more time, but did it serially. Rather than work fewer hours per week, I worked full time and saved a substantial percentage of our income. Now still in our 30’s, instead of 2 weeks of vacation per year we have 52. In rough numbers, saving 70% of your after tax income means its possible to “retire” in less than a decade

        We just hit our 1-year anniversary of traveling the world full time. Rather than idleness, we found great productivity. We’ve read a virtual library worth of books, studied and actively practiced Spanish, spent months in several new (to us) countries, continue writing two blogs, increased our skills at guitar, drawing, & cooking, and made a ton of new friends from all over the world. It is hard to figure out how I ever had time to go into an office

        I believe the majority of people find happiness in being productive rather than sloth. See children as a great example. Those who have always worked and know no other option may find it hard to believe that leisure is not a negative word.

        Thanks for sharing

        Jeremy

        • John says:

          Awesome comment Jeremy!

          Congratulations on your shift to a leisure lifestyle. 🙂

          I tend to agree that most people will choose productive activities over sloth. My feeling is that so many people spend their after work hours watching TV, drinking and shopping because their jobs are so boring and meaningless. With more free time, I think people would actually do more challenging and productive things with their lives.

          Of course, there are the despondent at the bottom end of the income scale that have lost all hope for employment and a meaningful life. However, that is far more connected to child poverty. Children who are behind in reading and math by grade three are extremely at risk for future social deviance as adults. More than a quarter of US inmates can’t read. That is problem of income inequality, not any inherit value in work.

          Thanks for reading!
          John

  11. Daniel says:

    Work builds character though 😉

    • John says:

      Thanks Daniel,

      You say that with a wink, but it’s a critical issue. Do we need work to build character? It may very well be true. That would explain the despondency of the chronically unemployed.

      If it is indeed true, our social systems need to adjust to a world with much less work. There must be better ways to build character than through shitty jobs. 🙂

      • Daniel says:

        Well, I meant it more like that it is good to have a purpose, producing something that can make your life and that of others better, increasing its value. This is what builds character and what makes someone a more interesting person.
        Having no aim is soul destroying, and shitty jobs also fall under this category imo. You see many jobs in the developed world without purpose. These are more an occupational therapy that pay money, than real vocations. People are essentially pushing papers all day.
        So, this is more about people having no direction, no sense of self-actualization, than having too little leisure time. More leisure time can actually increase apathy in the current state of affairs.
        What is needed imo is more sense of entrepreneurship, the feeling that a person can chance something, and the recognition of ones abilities. This realization (and societal change) can only come from (groups of) individuals, who drive the social system from the bottom up.

        • John says:

          Greetings Daniel,

          Thanks for continuing the conversation.

          I think we’re in agreement here. I completely agree that it’s good to have a purpose in our lives. I also agree that we need more entrepreneurship and people driving social change.

          I think there are two big problems though. First, the vast majority are not entrepreneurs. Most people seem to just want to work for someone else and go home and watch TV at the end of the day. Like other commenters have said, these people probably need outside direction because they have a hard time finding meaning for themselves.

          The second related problem, is that unemployment disproportionately affects those with the least skills and motivation. How do we give purpose to people who don’t really have a place in the economy. We already have huge problems with homelessness and youth unemployment. This is most definitely going to increase over time.

          My argument is that this affluent world is not some idyllic future we should strive to attain. It’s coming whether we like it or not. There are going to be mass sectors of our economies chronically unemployed while the richest get even richer.

          We have enough wealth now for the entire planet, the problem is that it’s just not equitably distributed.

          I think as societies we’ll need to take much better care of the disadvantaged and lower income earners, as well as, rediscover ways to find meaning and purpose in our lives without traditional work.

          I’m hoping it’ll be through contribution and creative endeavours, but I don’t expect the transition to be smooth. It takes about two generations to adapt to major social changes.

          The entrepreneurs will be fine. There will be plenty of opportunities to grow businesses. It’s the large numbers of unemployable workers that are going to wreck havoc on society.

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