Why aren’t we working less?

by Emrys Westacott

Back in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the continuous increase in productivity characteristic of industrial capitalism would lead within a century to much more leisure for everyone, with the typical working week being reduced to about fifteen hours. UnknownThis has obviously not come about. To be sure, in virtually all relatively prosperous countries the average number of hours worked annually has fallen over the last few decades. Between 1950 and 2010, in the US, for instance, this number dropped from 1,908 to 1,695, in Canada from 2,079 to 1,711, and in Denmark from 2,144 to 1,523. Even in Japan, famed for its workaholism, the average number of hours worked per year went from a high of 2,224 in 1961 to 1,706 in 2011.[1] But even the lackadaisical Danes are still working twice as hard as Keynes predicted.

Given the increases in productivity and prosperity in the industrialized world, one could have reasonably hoped for more. People in the UK are now four times better off than they were in 1930, but they work only twenty percent less, and that is fairly typical of other advanced economies. The rich, who used to relish their idleness, now boast about how hard they work, while for many of the poor unemployment is a persistent curse.

Moreover, according to economist Staffan Linder, economic growth is typically accompanied by a sense that we have less time available for the things we wish to do. This feeling is not mistaken, but the lack of time is in large part due to the fact that members of affluent societies will opt for more money over more leisure if given the choice. They then start to carry the mentality and values of workplace productivity into every part of their lives, resulting in what Linder calls the "harried leisure class."[2]

So why was Keynes wrong? According to Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much Is Enough? his mistake was to underestimate the difficulty of reining in the forces unleashed by capitalism, particularly people's desire for ever increasing wealth and the things it can buy. Our natural concern for improved relative status, hardwired into us by evolution, is inflamed by the capitalist system, complete with incessant advertising and free market ideology, so that we always want more than we have and more than we really need.[3]

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Just how green is the frugal, simple-living locavore?

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesSages through the ages have advanced many arguments in favour of living simply and frugally. For instance:

  • it keeps you away from morally corrupting temptations;
  • it cultivates virtues like self-sufficiency and hardihood;
  • it makes one better able to cope with adversity;
  • it is the surest path to happiness since it curtails misguided desires and directs us toward enjoying simple pleasures
  • it helps us focus on what really matters in life, like love, friendship, and our relationship with nature.

One idea that has come to the fore in recent times is that living simply is better for the environment. The basic argument is pretty straightforward. Industrialization and population growth have massively increased the impact of human beings on the natural environment. Much of this impact is negative: smog; acid rain; polluted rivers, lakes and seas; contaminated groundwater; litter; garbage dumps; toxic waste; soil erosion; deforestation; extinction or threatened extinction of plant and animal species; habitat destruction; reduced biodiversity; and perhaps most significant of all in the long term, global warming. Consumerism, extravagance, and wastefulness increase the damage being done; living frugally and simply, by contrast, reduces one's ecological footprint.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This is the familiar slogan shared by both frugal zealots and environmentalists. Books, articles and blogs abound advocating "ecofrugality" and advising us how to simultaneously save money and the environment by following practices such as walking or cycling instead of driving, drying clothes on the line, buying used items whenever feasible, and so on

Such measures, in addition to saving money, reduces the consumption of energy either directly, as when you turn off unnecessary lights, or indirectly by reducing demand for the production of new commodities. And as ecofrugalist Keith Heidorn says: "Reduction of waste in any form is a win for the environment. Reduction of material and energy use is a win for the planet and all life forms."[1]

Critics and skeptics, however, can point out that simplicity is not always green.

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Frugality, simplicity, and environmentalism

by Emrys Westacott

Many people today are drawn toward the ideals, values, and lifestyles that fall under the broad concept of “simple living.” ImgresDownsizing, downshifting, embracing radical frugality, building and living in “tiny houses,” going back to the land, growing one's own food, choosing greater self-sufficiency over consumerism, and seeking to preserve or revive traditional crafts: these are all part of this trend. So, too, is the Slow movement, a general term for the various ways in which people seek to combat the frenetic pace of modern life. The movement includes Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Sex (all originating in Italy), the Sloth Club (Japan), the Society for the Deceleration of Time (Austria), and the Long Now Foundation.[1]

According to some, the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 2000) are helping to boost this trend Compared to their elders, they are less interested in home ownership, happy to share cars rather than buy them, and savvy at using technology to save money and keep things simple through using companies like Zipcar (transport) Airbnb (accommodation), and thredUP (clothes).

A lot of people live frugally out of necessity, of course. But there are also philosophical arguments in favor of simple living. In a venerable tradition stretching that goes back to ancient thinkers like the Buddha, Socrates, and Epicurus, two lines of argument have been especially prominent.

1. Simple living is associated with moral virtue. E.g. It keeps us physically and spiritually pure, fosters traits like resilience and independence, cultivates sound values, and is typically viewed as a sign of integrity (think Gandhi).

2. Simple living is the surest path to happiness. E.g. It helps us be content with what we have, enhances our enjoyment of simple pleasures, allows us more leisure time by enabling us to work less, keeps us closer to nature, and generally promotes peace of mind.

In recent times an additional reason for embracing simplicity has come to the fore: namely, the environmentalist argument.

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