Less Consumption, Less Work

While clearing out some old bookmarks, I recently came across an oldie but goodie that I somehow neglected to share with you.

It’s an article by Jeffrey Kaplan in the May/June 2008 issue of Orion magazine, exploring the historical context behind corporate and government efforts to “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” These efforts were in response to the fact that our industrial capacity in the 1920s was capable of producing far more goods than people felt they needed. Here’s an excerpt:

“By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough. […] They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

It includes a fascinating look behind the Kellogg Company’s 6-hour workday initiative (introduced in 1930)—which, although it meant lower overall pay, was enthusiastically embraced by its employees. Workers appreciated the extra time to spend with their families, in their gardens, and participating in their communities. Instead of feeling impoverished by their decrease in buying power, they felt enriched by the increase in their leisure time.

The article is a thought-provoking piece about the work-to-spend cycle, which posits the question: What if we used our industrial capacity to reduce our working hours instead of ramping up our consumption? Consider this:

“…we could work and spend a lot less and still live quite comfortably. By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day—or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then.”

Follow this link to read the full article…

On a personal level, I’ve thought about this issue a lot lately. My dilemma: do I put Plumblossom in daycare, and continue to work full-time? Or do I cut back on my income-producing activities in favor of spending my time with her? So far, I’ve opted for the latter, and I’m fortunate that I’m in the position to do so. Of course, minimalism helps a lot; my husband and I feel that as long as we can meet our basic needs (housing, food, healthcare), the extra income I’d bring in is not as valuable as the time I give our daughter.

Anyway, back to the article…The take-home message for us minimalists: when our wants are few, and we have little desire to acquire extraneous items, we can break free of the corporate message that what we have is “not enough”—thereby escaping the pressure to work more, simply so we can spend more.

Less consumption = less work = more time = happiness. :-)

What do you think? If your basic needs were covered, would you choose (or have you chosen) fewer working hours over extra income?

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

108 comments to Less Consumption, Less Work

  • I would choose time over money, because we never know how long we get to enjoy being alive. As long as my basic needs are met (with a few luxuries) I’m pretty satisfied. I’d love it if we could make the economy work in a way that allowed all workers to work a 4 day week. I appreciate it’s not likely to happen but I think it’d be great for our enjoyment in life. Although my other half and I were talking last night that maybe the reasonable working hours back in the 50’s combined with constructive levels of work related stress is why our Grandparents generation is living so to a much greater age? Speculation only.

    I’m not a Mummy but I do know that I loved having my Mum at home when I got home from school. When my sister and I were at school Mum started working again but only during school hours, I’m forever grateful that whenever I needed her for a cuddle or a cry or some fun or chat – she was there. I know what I would choose for me as a child but I don’t know what I would choose for me as a Mum, it’s tricky because I love my work. I’m sure you’ll keep a flexible balance that works for you and your family and I love the fact she’s not ‘online’ because she hasn’t choosen it for herself yet – love it! So forward thinking because I’m sure you’re right – I’d not have liked people knowing about me before I’d choosen to make it public! Facinating! Fiona,x

  • Emile

    It’s tough because as someone else said, most people at the US can’t decrease their work house without losing benefits. I choose to work part time (although I’m not sure if it’s a true choice, since disability related issues make it hard for me to work more). But I don’t get any healthcare.

    If I had all the basics though, I would definitely take the time, and use it to do activist work.

  • Having my own business has thrown me into the position of “making less = less work = more time”. When my husband and I both had full-time jobs, we made quite a lot, but never saw one another and spent way too much!

    Now that we own a business together, we work together and I hardly ever spend time without him. I have also found that because we’re making less, our wants are fewer and we are smarter with our money. I would rather continue living this way, having my basic needs met and almost nothing else, then get a full-time job again. Money is a renewable resource, time with my husband is priceless.

  • When planning my career, I decided that I wanted a job that would offer me the most pay for the least hours and education. Sounds harsh but at the time I was a stay at home mom of 7 children just stepping out into the work force for the very first time. I didn’t have years to spend in school and once I was working I wanted to only work a few days a week so that I could spend more time with my kids. I found it, thank goodness, and I am able to support my family working 5 days a month.

    Balance in all things.

    I don’t know where I’ve been, I didn’t realize you worked full-time. I guess assumed your blog was your career. ;)

    You might find that after being home for a while, part-time suits you…just enough time out of the house for your own stimulation but not so much time that it’s a problem for the family.

  • Lina

    My husband haves a very good income, we have our basic needs and beyond covered. I was able to spend time with our daughter and believe me is the best thing I have done, to be there the day she discovered she had hands, the time she flipped from tummy to her back to give her her first food etc. All the money in the world would not pay for that, to have a child so confident for having spent every day with her mom that when i left her in day care at one and a half she was the happyest child and not even one tear was shed (she only goes in the morning) so go ahead if you can, you will never make up for lost time, never ever, you can relax or let go later but you will never get back the time you lost, so if you can do it and don’t look back! Your child will be different just because of that. Did you know that in places like day care they know when a child is taken care by the parents and not a nanny? They know because it shows!

  • I think I just have started to deal with this issue being a college student and facing graduation next year. Less is definitely more and I will have to work on this minimalism thing :P Thank you so much for posting this

  • Heather

    I enjoy working and I get paid to do what I love. I think that is key. Having said this, I think you have to establish your work/life balance fairly early on. I do not work OT, unless it’s a life and death situation (I do work in healthcare). I do not bring work home nor do I work from home after hours. I get what I need done in 8 hours and go home. I leave work at work and enjoy my family time. It has taken me until almost 38 to figure this out.

  • KD

    Less consumption, more time for family – seems like what the native american cultural norm was/is all about and it was so savagely against the white supremist business model that it had to be wiped out! Tsk tsk. Perhaps those elders knew something that was important if only someone had taken the time to listen & comprehend rather than murder an idea and a people group just to ‘have it your way’. Thanks be to the Great Mystery that more people are listening now.

  • Dana

    I would love to work fewer hours, make less money, and have more time. If I could do that and still maintain my healthcare and retirement plan, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

    Of course, most Americans live so deeply in debt that the idea of cutting back to just “what we need” still has to include massive credit card/mortgage/car/student loan payments. I’m in that category still, and working my way out…which is why I can’t really entertain the thought of cutting back my working hours even to normal 40-hour weeks. A year of being unemployed has a tendency to change your perspective on how much you “need.”

  • I, too, love my job. I went to school for many years (some on my own dime) to someday get this job. Heather is right, it is a balance, or for me, a series of day-to-day tradeoffs. I hope at the end of each week/month/year, on balance I have favored my family over my job. When my then-7 year old started a 2 year chemotherapy protocol, I was grateful for the heath insurance and time off without hassles or questions. I was also grateful for our finances- we had so much to worry about, I couldn’t imagine having to worry about money too. ( i contrubute 50% of household income+ benefits). That being said, I have tried to pare down my life, of both extraneous material things and extraneous stress (sometimes they are related!) But my work is part of me, I love it and it is important to me. I would never give it up. I would also never give up the peace of mind I get from my family’s financial safeguards. We are not wealthy, but by living within our means and prudent financial planning, I know if the worst should happen- again- we can survive…at least financially.

  • Amy

    After my first child was born, I went back to work only to give 2/3 of my take home pay to the nanny and having to pump four times a day at work. I thought, why did I have a kid if I wasn’t even going to raise him myself? So I quit my wonderful, well paying job and have not regretted becoming a stay at home mom for one moment and it has been 4 years now. I was determined to make it work with less income and becoming a minimalist was a huge part of that. Less gas and work clothes to buy. I make meals from scratch and even grow my own veggies and fruit. And regular play dates, playgroups, MOMS club, etc. provide plenty of adult interaction, one thing I did miss when I quit working. Where there is a will, there is a way. I think if a new mom wants to stay home with her baby, it might be possible as long as she is honest about what she really needs and not just what she is used to.
    I love reading Orion too!

  • JMK

    After 4 layoffs between the two of us over the years, I can honestly say moving to the minimalist “way” has certainly taken the stress out of life. We live on about 55% of our take home pay, so either of us could be laid off and we’d be just fine indefinitely with only minor tweaks to spending until a new job is found. It wasn’t always this way and it was the 3rd layoff that caused us to smarten up and learn to live on far less than what we earned. The 4th layoff was barely a blip on our accounts. We just didn’t make any extra mortgage payments until I started my new job 6 weeks later. Theoretically one of us could quit work, but at this point with one preteen and one starting college, the benefit of having a parent at home all the time has passed. We both have the freedom to work from home a day or two a week so we can create the “stay at home” benefit any day we like to suit what’s going on in our kids lives. When they were little, we were weren’t in jobs with so much flexibility but were fortunate to have had excellent daycare providers, a relative for our oldest and for our youngest a wonderful former teacher who we keep in contact with to this day.

    In addition to never again stressing about a lay off, we now plan to use that extra income to retire early, but in the meantime we travel extensively with our kids – our one luxury in an otherwise frugal lifestyle.

  • Mira

    This is exactly why I chose only to work 28 hours per week rather than the full-time 35. My partner also only works 28 hours per week.

    We both have very low salaries, but we live very comfortably. Every weekend is a three-day weekend for us. My partner works away during the week, so both of us having Friday off means more time together and ultimately less strain on the relationship.

    Friends often wonder how we are able to stay afloat financially. We have no debt. We regularly deposit money into our savings accounts. If I can avoid buying something to meet a need, I do. I shop around. I like to DO rather than CONSUME. I think these shifts in attitude are key to living with a low(ered) income.

    When we do eventually have children, my ideal scenario would be that we both work part-time and share childcare responsibilities. But that is in an ideal world…

    • Anatiday

      Mira, you’re living my dream. At the moment, with my partner back at University for his last year and me already out and working full time, we’ve already realised that 5 days a week is too much. We’ll slog through it for a few years, but we have the same goal as you – once we have children, we will both work part-time, as we are both invested in the development of our children. I feel sorry for all the dads who are obligated to work only because it’s the traditional male/female split, without both partners considering dropping to part time work. I know my dad would’ve loved to play with me and my siblings more when we were tiny, but mum could only provide sporadic additions to their income at the time. //from Australia

  • Mira

    Also, there are some good books that touch on this subject such as How to Be Idle and How to Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson and Enough: breaking free from the world of more by John Naish.

  • Little Snail

    I think that was a great move by Kellogg to institute 6-hour work days. I agree with their argument that people were more productive that way anyway. It’s a pity most employers discourage working fewer hours or even cut benefits. The fact that so many comments on this post mentioned living on one income underscores to me the lack of “in between” options available. Of course a more compressed form of working less and consuming less is retiring early – again not as flexible an option.

    Francine – I really enjoy the more philosophical aspects of your posts. I’m thinking about the notion of – what if my basic needs were met – then would I be happy to work less. In theory, yes. But I find it’s easy to let consumerism take over. It’s easy to get caught up. I don’t even need to compare myself to the Joneses, I just find myself wanting nicer clothes and nicer gadgets because I get used to the ones I have. But seeing lots of space in my house is very satisfying, as is the idea of the next move being less work than the previous one. Blogs like yours help a lot :)

  • Ariel

    Unfortunately, our basic needs ARE covered, but we need the extra money to pay off student loan debt and save up for a house for when we procreate. We would also love to travel (aka expensive plane tickets!). I also love my job though, so I enjoy working 60 hours. We are fortunate right now that we have no children yet so that we are able to do this. When the debt is gone and we have some savings, the NEED to work will no longer be there, and we can relax a little, and have some little ones. :)

  • My cousin’s tagline on her blog used to be, “There is a good reason most people are paid by the hour. Time is money and we find the less we need the more time we have for the things that really matter.”

  • Actually, I was slightly off on the quote. Here it is: “There’s a good reason most people are paid by the hour. Time is money. We’ve found that the less money we need, the more time we have for the important things in life. Simplicity and self-reliance shape our lives.”

  • We have lived very frugally for many years so I could be a stay at home mom and raise our kids. I never regret that decision. The benefits may not be tangible, but they are there. You may never know the influence you will have by doing that. It is nice to be there for the first step, first word, etc. Never underestimate the value of being a stay at home mom. I know there are those who do not have the choice, especially with the economy the way it is. My heart goes out to you who wish that you could. I hope someday your situation will be one where you will have the choice. It is a lesson for all of us in life, to live our lives where we don’t look back and regret the decisions we make. Good luck with whatever you do. My treasures are my kids.

  • Carol

    I definitely would. I’m a translator and most of the translators I know are freelancers. I know a lot of people and translation agencies, so it would be easy for me if I wanted to quit my job to be a freelancer and choose how many hours I want to work (as I did before I had kids). What I still have to do before I finally quit my job:

    – I need the security of having my own house. I don’t want to pay the rent for the rest of my life.

    – My son is deaf and needs speech therapy many times a week, among other things, which is now covered by the health insurance the company I work for pays for its employees.

    – Here in Brazil public schools are generally not good. The best schools are the most expensive ones. If I do not provide now a good education for my 2 kids (who are 6 and 7 years old), they won’t pass an exam to go to a good college/university later. They do not go to the best already, but I don’t want them to go to the worst either :-S
    (I know this education thing is a whole different debate. I don’t even know if they will want to go to college. Maybe they chose a profession which does not require any college, but just some courses or experience. I just want to make sure that if they do not go to college it is because they did not want to and not because their parents didn’t care)

    So considering all this, I think I’ll be able to work less in my forties! Better late than never :-) (FYI, I’m 31 now)

  • Kristin

    Who are you people that have your own business and don’t have to work very much? My husband has his own business and he has to work all the time – there isn’t anyone else to rely on. I guess we’re doing it wrong! I work full time, and although I make a good salary, I could make more if I wanted to work more, but I have chosen the more relaxed/lower pay end of my career rather than a go-go version. So I guess I have made that choice, but to a milder degree than fully part-time or not working at all.

    I guess we are in the minority here, but working full time doesn’t have to be horrible or stressful. We do outsource a lot, so when we get home, we can just play with the kids, make dinner (or go out), and it doesn’t have to be crazy. We hang out a lot on the weekends. In some cases, a full time job can mean that although you check email from home, you have a lot of control over the hours you work and can leave early or come in late as needed. Part-time work can be more rigid.

    If you’re lucky, you get to choose whether you want to spend your days living a frugal live and cooking from scratch and cleaning – or working in an office, and using your money to go out to eat and paying someone to clean. I may be in the minority, but I like my job, and I don’t like to clean, and while my husband cooks most nights, I LOVE to go out to eat. I guess there is an argument that living frugally takes less time than a 40 hour a week job, so you have more time overall, but I’m not sure that would be true for me. Particularly with taking caring for kids, I love the kids so much, but I suck at getting anything done while taking care of them. Plus I think it helps with the family dynamic for us to both bring in money and share the other work – everything is a team effort, from kid sick duty to fixing the car. It works for us. And if anything happened to one of us or if we got divorced (we’re happy! but things change sometimes), the other one would be just fine financially.

  • Ali

    I’m lucky to have a part-time job where I get full (and excellent) benefits. I work about 30 hours/week, and I think it is the perfect amount of time. I could definitely use an extra day off every other week, but that extra day of work provides me with a nice financial cushion. Since I’ve been working part time for the last 7 years, and most of the people I work with also work part-time, I am always amazed by those who continue to work full-time, even though many do not have much of a choice. My husband is one of them, but I am pleased to get many of the tedious operational tasks (grocery shopping, cleaning, etc.) done on my off-time so that we can have more fun/quality time together. However, I would love for him to be able to work part-time as well. We both have a lot of hobbies, so I don’t think it’s fair that I get more time to pursue them. I am still busy, but I don’t feel as frazzled as some of my friends who work full-time. I think we all need time to just stare at a wall and think (or not think), without being worried about wasting our precious time.

  • Ration Baby

    I grew up in post-war UK with far less consumption. Rationed food, scarce housing, scarcer jobs, but I had the most wonderful childhood, of anyone I now know.
    Parents back from war had only priority – family
    love, and had faith everything else would work out.

    Fast forward to 10 years ago – Hubby and me were thinking of early retirement, less money and more time.
    When I asked my father (now 83) his advice, he said, don’t give it a second thought, go for it- the money will always work itself out. “Donald Trump can’t buy 10 years of life as cheaply as you two can!”
    He was so right, and it’s been wonderful.
    Just this year, he said his only regret in life was working to age 65, as my mother died not long after. His only regret was they didn’t have longer together.
    No wonder he gave me such good advice.

  • Kellie

    No on ever said on their death bed that they wished they could have worked more.

    I work mega hours in my own business because I want to. I put into it what I get out and satisfaction and love of what I do is why I work so much. However, my work is my playtime because I get to travel, meet people, be outside and have a great time while making money. Who could ask for more?

  • Kellie

    and one more thing – never, ever be a wage slave!

  • More hours without a doubt!!

    Precious time that could be spent with those I love, doing things that I truly enjoy.

    Thanks for the link, such a fascinating (/slightly scary!) read!!


  • We have chosen time over money as well. I support our family with my teaching job, and my husband stays at home with our little Beanie. Yes, we do see people who have more than us, because both parents work outside of the home. It’s easy to get jealous, until we realize that they don’t have weekends and summers together, like we do. Do I feel a little wistful, when I compare our old, run-down cars to our friends’ brand new models? Of course I do. But I would never give up our summertime adventures in order to have more stuff.

  • Kellie

    Those of you who have the luxury to work less hours are lucky. Most employers who hire you for a full time job usually demand more than 40 hours per week. Normal these days is upwards to 60. Arrive early, stay late and on call during the weekends. It is expected. If you can’t meet these requirements, out the door and ten more are ready to take your place. Employees are expendable and in this economy, you will do as you are told, more hours, less money. A sad state in the US where the crackberry has replaced free time and you must stay connected even while on vacation. Have you ever gotten a phone call from your boss at midnight on a Sunday? I did. That’s when I said goodbye to the corporate world, their work attitudes, and started my own business. And I have never looked back. I make more money and have more free time. Still, it makes me mad to see friends bend over backwards for an employer who thinks nothing of them. Loyalty is lost and the days of bonus pay for a good job are over. If you are lucky to have a good job, you are hanging by a thread as someone younger who they can pay less is just waiting for a chance to boot you out and take over your position. And sadly, nobody cares.

  • Elizabeth

    Henry Ford was known for his philosophy of paying his workers a middle class wage so as to allow them disposable income to purchase more goods. He was an advocate of consumerism/capitalism (among other things).

    The question you ask also needs to be factored in with the increase in convenience. Although the industrial revolution provided people with more leisure, the influx of convenience did not occur until much later, thus the increase in obesity can be correlated with supermarkets, fast food restaurants, super stores, etc., which did not exist during the time of the industrial revolution. The Lancet outlines these occurences and others in their study on obesity. It is an interesting piece, very long though, and somewhat technical.

    As someone who stayed home with her children for the first seven years of their lives, I can only say this: you have all of your life to work; you only have one opportunity to experience your infant’s childhood. If you can afford to do it, by all means stay home, but keep yourself stimulated as well.

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments!

  • Melissa

    I so agree with the time over money equation! I work three quarter time and while I earn less than my friends who work full time, I don’t seem to be much worse off at the end of the day. Yet my life is so much richer by the time I give my dog, my young brothers and my writing. A recent paper: http://www.neweconomics.org/sites/neweconomics.org/files/National_gardening_leave.pdf found that there would be economic, ecological and emotional benefits from a four day work week. The only fly in the ointment is the availability of part-time roles for skilled, experienced workers. Thanks for another great, open-minded blog representing that there are choices that are right for different people.

  • Tina

    I worked part time evenings and weekends when my kids were young. When they were all in school, I worked full time. We never lived on all our income so when we were offered early retirement at 40 0/0 of our pay, we took it. We worked part time for a while, and then retired all together. There is lots to do. Volunteer work, hobbies, visiting with friends take time. For a while I volunteered at my grandchildren’s school.

  • Tina

    I usually have one activity per day scheduled. If I am not called to volunteer at my grandkids’ school, I will be volunteering at the public library. I also take a Bible class once a week. There are all kinds of interesting things to do in the area where I live.

  • Tina

    You will find that when you retire your spending drops dramatically. We live well on 40 0/0 of our previous income. We only have one car, we aren’t paying any college expenses any more and we don’t eat out as much. We have more money for travel and treats.

  • Tina

    Since we’ve retired completely, we’ve taken a cruise every year and go to every family event. If we spent money on silly stuff, we wouldn’t be able to do that. I finally told my daughter, who doesn’t save money, to give her money to her brother so he can keep her from spending it. It has worked out well and now she has a few thousand put away.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>