consumerism current affairs economics lifestyle shopping

Good news – we all need to work less

In the last couple of weeks I’ve discovered the work of Canada-based activist Conrad Schmidt. He’s the man behind Artists for Peace, the World Naked Bike Ride, and now the Work Less Party, who campaign for a 32-hour work week under the motto ‘Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams’.

While this may all sound rather tongue in cheek, there is some sound economics at work behind Mr Schmidt’s ideas. The problem is efficiency:

“Since the 1950s we have had a 400% increase in productivity as a result of manufacturing technologies” he explains in a recent Ecologist article. “In just 11 hours of labour today we can produce the same amount of goods as somebody working for 40 hours in the 1950s. Today, for the economy to function we must consume 400% more than we did in the 1950s.”

In other words, our increased efficiency means we’re constantly creating new surpluses of goods for the market to absorb. If the market can’t absorb them (ie we stop shopping), jobs will be lost. That’s what happened during the Great Depression, says Schmidt, and is what we’re seeing now.

Lets say I’m a tailor, and I can create a suit a day. Then I buy a new sewing machine that means I can create a suit in a morning. I now have a choice. I can either start making two suits a day, and hope to sell more suits, or I can make one suit a day and then spend the afternoon fishing.

Multiply that across the industrial world and you can see what’s happened – we’ve chosen to make the two suits. Since the world didn’t actually ask for the massive surpluses we’ve created, we’ve had to develop an aggressive advertising industry to persuade them to buy more.

It was ever thus, according to Schmidt. When James Hargraves invented the Spinning Jenny in 1764, it created a vast surplus of yarn, as well as putting thousands of spinners out of work. It was right around this point, faced with more yarn than they knew what to do with, that people started changing their clothes regularly. 250 years later, we’re inventing new wants like there’s no tomorrow, desperately trying to keep pace with technology, whether we can afford it or not. But there’s still the other option – making the one suit and going fishing. As Jeffrey Kaplan wrote in Orion Magazine earlier this year:

“Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but ‘higher productivity’—and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce.”

We’ve now got to the point where our industry is producing more than we can afford to buy. We’re all in debt, Woolworths has gone bust and jobs are being lost as we all fall behind in the spending we’re supposed to be doing. It’s time to limit productivity, to stop building up surpluses.

If we want to save the economy, solve the debt problem, and break the cycle of endless consumerism, we all need to work less.

  • Conrad explains it better than I do in this charmingly ramshackle home-made video documentary.
  • There’s a lot more to this, including Roosevelt’s 30 hour work week, and the Kellogg Company’s experiments in six hour days. I will come back to it another time, but I recommend Kaplan’s article on ‘The Gospel of Consumption‘.
  • I work a 30 hour week myself, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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  1. Thanks for food for thought. I do have some doubts, though. First, I do wonder if ever any progress is made if we keep the “work as little as possible” system. And I do not necessarily mean industries, pollution & science. Take sport for example. Secondly, if a small shop manager decides to sell only within 30-hour period, he soon will go out of business. Now once he does, he fires his staff. So two or three people are out of work (chain reaction). Thirdly, I live in Poland. Here, because of the communist past, we have to work to give money to those who are NOW retired or soon will be. This means that if I stop working, retired people won’t recieve their pension. As for machinery, yes it can be get idle once it has done its work but the problem is that machinery has to be ever more complex (which costs money). Some/most businesses cannot afford to get expensive equipment and then do half-time. In short, I like the idea but I doubt it is workable this side of reality.

  2. Yes, it’s not applicable to every industry, nor is it applicable to every country or economy at this stage – hard work has its place while it is still productive. The problem is in many cases further productivity would actually be harmful, and that’s the stage we have reached with a consumer economy where we have to go into debt to keep sucking up the surpluses of products.

    I just made passing mention to them in the article or it would have been too long, but one of Roosevelt’s key measures in addressing the great depression was to make a 30 hour week mandatory in industry. This kept more people in work, sharing out the employment opportunities.
    The Kellogg company did something similar, employing twice the number of people and doing two six-hour shifts in the working day. That was instituted in the 1920s, and continued until the late 1980s, because the unions kept backing it.

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