The Gospel of Consumerism


I was reading this interesting article called ‘The Gospel of Consumption‘ by Jeffrey Kaplan and it raised a number of interesting points. In developed countries over the twentieth century, productivity and real wages have grown a huge amount. People’s work creates more value per hour, and hence they are usually paid more. Kaplan writes that in the United States, 2005 per capita household income was twelve times what it had been in 1929. If we were to go back to the standard of living that people in 1948 enjoyed, we would only have to work 2.7 hours per day.

The article raises the interesting question of whether we wouldn’t all be better off if we didn’t work so hard and enjoyed more leisure time. Instead of chasing after the next generation of TV or a fancier car or a new cellphone one could relax and read a book or spend some time with your family or something. Kaplan talks about an interesting and hugely popular pilot scheme that Kellogg (the cereal guy) ran in his factories where all his workers shifted to six hour days (30 hour weeks). It meant less pay for workers, but substituted the “mental income” of more leisure time instead. There was also the added bonus of more employment to go around. The workers loved it – it meant more time to spend with their family or gardening or playing ping pong.

Imagine if as a society we decided to work less – we would certainly have to endure a drop in income, but would we be any less happy? I know for a lot of people who are struggling in poverty cutting back on hours is impractical, but for the majority of rich westerners it’s an interesting question.

Most of us equate happiness with the number of material possessions we have – we’ve got into this cycle of consumerism where we can never have enough. After a certain point, we just need to recognise that we’ve got enough material stuff, work less hours, enjoy more leisure time and ultimately be happier.

Image credit: mark sebastian (Creative Commons BY-SA)