Leisure Time v. Consumerism Open Thread
This post is inspired by Hanley’s post on inequality and LWA’s comments about whether materialist desires are making all of us really unhappy.
LWA wrote: “I’ve written a bit here how I do believe that we- those in the political world- fixate too much on material consumption, substituting consumption for justice, as if the tilting distribution of material goods towards the lower end of the wealth spectrum is the sum total goal of our policy.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with this viewpoint. There is much to it that is worthy and I often think we sacrifice social goods for the sake of business and economic efficiency. But there is always a part of me that wants to rebel against anti-materialist and anti-consumerist viewpoints.
The past few years have seen a rise in articles about whatever happened to the fifteen-hour week or the four-hour day. These articles take their inspiration from a 1930 article by John Maynard Keynes titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes predicted that technology and other advancements would make the workforce so efficient that only the most hardcore workaholics would end up working more than fifteen hours a week. For the sake of argument we will define work as the stuff you need to do to pay the bills: mortgage, rent, buy groceries, pay the utilities, etc.
The articles I’ve read often wonder why the fifteen hour week does not exist and the thinking goes towards conspiracy. The conspiracy is specifically that corporations have used marketing to convince people that consumer goods and material wealth is more important than free time/leisure time. Also jobs and long working hours are a tool of social control from the elites.
I find this argument lacking because it seems to fail at Occam’s Razor. Why can’t it be said that many or maybe even most people have a preference towards material goods over leisure time? The people I know who advocate for the fifteen-hour week tend to all exist somewhere on the vaguely to very hippie scale and have romantic notions of existing off the grid and/or in something that resembles Tolkien’s shire. These are people whose idea of a weekend away is more likely to involve very muddy camping or going to Comic Con over spending a weekend in Napa or Sonoma or in Tahoe. They are also often people with no desire to live in an area like San Francisco or New York where real estate prices will always be high.
The other issue I’ve noted here is that anti-consumerism is often short-hand as a way of criticizing people for spending money in ways that the speaker would not. I’ve never seen anyone criticize comic books, tattoos, video game systems, stereo systems, and other electronic products, expensive bikes and/or other outdoor gear as being consumerist or materialists. The products that get criticized as materialist and consumerist can often be described as being kind of inner-ring suburb yuppie: shoes, purses, clothing, home decor that exists at a price point above IKEA (think Design within Reach), etc. I don’t see why spending 2000 dollars on tattoos is less consumerist and materialist than spending 2000 dollars on a suit or a purse. Yet I’ve had many people argue until their faces were blue that a tattoo is virtuous but an Isaia suit or Guidi handbag is not.
Keynes wrote his famous essay with the biases of the British upper-class. This was a group of people who never lacked anything materially and were able to value free-time and leisure over material goods. One of my friends who argues for the four-hour workday comes from a large amount of inherited wealth. My friend is not a rich-kid of instagram. In many ways he is down to earth and has a preference for reading over late-night partying. He is not spending his inherited wealth on 2000-dollar bottles of champagne at clubs but he does have his own version of luxuries that he can purchase without second thought and he can afford to live in very nice neighborhoods without giving it much thought either. I know many other people who can afford to be “independently employed in the arts” simply because of their inherited wealth and not needing to care about how to pay the rent on an artist’s salary and how to do so without having roommates except girlfriends and boyfriends.
I’ve also seen it pointed out that many people could probably live like a median 1930s Brit on fifteen to eighteen hours a week but most of us would probably not want to considering the standard of living in 1930s Britain was not that great.
Consider this an open thread on leisure time v. materialism/consumerism? Why should society or a person consider leisure time more important than consumerist goods? Why should there be a preference for a lot of three day weekends instead of one or two longer vacations a year? Is leisure time a luxury for the rich? Does the existence of people who prefer material goods over leisure time make it impossible for people to work less? Why are tattoos not considered consumerist but fashion items are? Etc.