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In praise of leisure

Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

 

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Imagine a world in which most people worked only 15 hours a week. They would be paid as much as, or even more than, they now are, because the fruits of their labor would be distributed more evenly across society. Leisure would occupy far more of their waking hours than work. It was exactly this prospect that John Maynard Keynes conjured up in a little essay published in 1930 called "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." Its thesis was simple. As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. Then, Keynes wrote, "for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well." He thought this condition might be reached in about 100 years—that is, by 2030.

Given when it was written, it is not surprising that Keynes's futuristic essay was ignored. The world had much more urgent problems to attend to, including getting out of the Great Depression. And Keynes himself never explicitly reverted to his vision, though the dream of a workless future was always there in the background of his thinking. Indeed, it was as a theorist of short-term unemployment, not of long-run economic progress, that Keynes achieved world fame, with his great book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for returning to the questions Keynes raised, then dropped.

He asked something hardly discussed today: What is wealth for? How much money do we need to lead a good life? This might seem an impossible question. But it is not a trivial one. Making money cannot be an end in itself—at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both. Or will we?

Keynes essay, "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" (1930, pdf)

 

 


Comments

Michelle
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Joined: May 10 2001

The problem is, even though we as a society work longer and longer hours, we're buying twice as much stuff as we used to in order to fill the few leisure hours we have!  Which means that more and more people have to work longer hours for less money to make the stuff cheap enough for everyone to be able to buy enough crap they don't need to fill the leisure time they don't have.


Sven
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Joined: Jul 22 2005

It's not just tied to buying "stuff," Michelle. Will students in school be able to learn three times faster than they do know so that teachers would only need to work 15 hours per week (which is roughly a third as much as they work now)?  Could our existing doctors and nurses cut their hours by (at least) two-thirds and still be able to handle all patient needs?  I don't know. Maybe sometime in the distant future, but not by 2030 (or even by 2130). 

In any event, any hope of such a utopia will require technology and automation that will need to researched and developed and that will, in the mean time, require a lot of people to be doing a lot of work (no 15-hour work weeks for them)...


Ghislaine
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Joined: Feb 15 2008

Well put, Michelle. Our society has become so materialistic; what we really need to do is recognize the important things in life that really are not things. 

Catchfire, I love the idea. I would certainly love to only have to send my daughter to daycare for 15 hrs per week and get to spend the rest of the time with her! 


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Keynes and other economists were worried that as societies became richer, people would save more money and adversely affect demand. That's not a problem today. People are not saving much money and are, instead, working to pay off debt. And workers in North America haven't had a real wage increase since 1982.

Unions, higher wages and savings resulting from prosperous economies? Not a problem under neoliberalism.

I think Keynes and Marxists in general had no idea that finance capitalism would overthrow industrial capitalism by end of the century, and that most of the fruits of post-war productivity gains would go to the richest one percent. Today Keynes and Marx would likely tell us that debts which can not be paid, won't be. It's finished. Their monetary system is finished.

Michael Hudson wrote:
Nearly all observers expected the fruits of technology to trickle down, not be siphoned up to the top, to the banking sector whose "financial engineering" played no directly technological role in the production process. Textbook models describe - or rather, assume - that rising productivity will be passed on to labor in the form of lower prices (reflecting falling costs of production, enabling wages to buy more) or, if prices are "sticky," higher wages.

According to what the textbooks called Say's Law, there is a circular flow between producers and consumers. Workers must be able to buy the results of what they produce. This correlation between output and consumption goes back to the Physiocrats prior to the French Revolution, who created economics and account keeping.


Unionist
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Joined: Dec 11 2005

I found the essay a bit wordy. I think the reader gets the point early on. I'm not sure why he credits Keynes, though, with the underlying idea. Surely it goes back earlier than that. I don't think even Marx was the first to elaborate the notion that improvement of the productive forces will increasingly displace labour (never mind the ongoing successful struggles of the workers' movement to limit the duration of the work week):

Marx, in Critique of the Gotha Programme wrote:
"In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and with it also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished, after labor has become not only a livelihood but life's prime want, after the productive forces have increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly--only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois law be left behind in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"

 


Michelle
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Joined: May 10 2001

I keep hearing the buzz-phrase, "Prosperity without growth" and I keep meaning to read and learn more about that.  I'm assuming that it would mean more leisure time if it could be realized.

There are two books in my library that I keep reading again and again periodically.  One is called, "How to Want What You Have" and the other is "Your Money or Your Life".  Both have interesting ideas about living simply, and at least eventually living with less stuff and working less.  The main point being, what's worth more - stuff you don't need, or your leisure time or time you can devote to living?

Of course, this assumes that you have an hourly wage rate that you can afford to live on with fewer working hours.  Someone making minimum wage would probably not be able to do a "voluntary simplicity" thing where you reduce your work hours and your consumption and try to live on the remainder and have more leisure.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Sven wrote:
It's not just tied to buying "stuff," Michelle. Will students in school be able to learn three times faster than they do know so that teachers would only need to work 15 hours per week (which is roughly a third as much as they work now)?  Could our existing doctors and nurses cut their hours by (at least) two-thirds and still be able to handle all patient needs?  I don't know. Maybe sometime in the distant future, but not by 2030 (or even by 2130).

I don't see why not --the obvious answer to the first problem is simply more teachers. And less, er, reality television hosts. The answer to the second is rather an enormous separate issue, but my instinct is to point to the de-professionalization of the vocation and a wider, more holistic and social approach to health care which includes, but is not limited to, a dedication to fitness, healthy eating, clean air and water, and access to dignified living conditions. I mean we are talking about utopia here, so, like Unionist points out, we don't need to(and shouldn't)  limit ourselves to the capitalist mode of production.

I agree that the point is pretty simple, and actually just underlines the key contradiction of capitalism, which Michelle nailed early on: if production and efficiency have been improving for well over a century, why aren't our lives a lot eaiser?


Lard Tunderin Jeezus
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Joined: Aug 27 2001

I knew somebody wouldn't be able to ignore the trolling, but I am rather surprised to see Catchfire on the hook...


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Michael Hudson wrote:
A century ago, optimists imagined that by increasing productivity, industrial capitalism would provide more leisure time, and hence would usher in higher cultural horizons. But by opposing a role for government and using the public debt as a lever to privatize hitherto public services - including public TV and radio broadcasting, national film boards, arts and other cultural programs - finance capitalism has tended to commercialize culture by downgrading it to the most common (lowest) but also most profitable common denominator.

Ancient economic thought also viewed wealth and income as addictive. It coped with the threat that wealth tended to lead to abusive hubristic behavior on the part of the rich. A designated role of religious and social values was to counter this human tendency toward addictive selfishness. But modern economic theory is based on a view of human nature that unrealistically assumes diminishing marginal utility for each successive unit of wealth. The problem of wealth addiction - and hence, drives for personal power - is not recognized, nor are problems of consumer addiction.

In medieval England a person, usually a man, could work a month or two and earn enough to maintain his family for a year. Selling our labour in the market place was not always central to peoples lives. Today markets are everywhere, and those who control money creation control peoples lives. Today financial capitalists and market speculators are driven by two basic instincts: greed and fear. It not only distorts economic results, it distorts human nature as well. Their neoliberal capitalism is based more on satisfying self-interest and greed than representing a real model of human behaviour. They are shaping human nature to fit their view of the world, and it isn't very scientific.

IOWs if we want more leisire time, we are living in the wrong part of the world where market ideology is on the increase. Linda McQuaig says that in North America there are markets for just about everything including racial slurs. More leisure time? Try France, Denmark or Sweden.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

And Sven, I think the 15 hour concept is about the standard work week, and what is considered overtime.  We all know that there are plenty of people and professions which do not fit that model, and never will. 

Why is it that six weeks of vacation is the standard in some places, but not here? That certainly hasn't destroyed any economies, even though one would think it would be more distruptive than a shorter work week.

Though my first thought when I read the OP is that we have have the first half of the equation, thanks to WalMart. Too bad the second half wasn't part of the bargain.

 


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

When I was working in telecom 60, 80 and 100+ hours a week was typical. I ate, slept and dreamed work. Work was on my mind during the 50 minute commute. Those who worked fewer hours were viewed as not very dedicated to the company's bottom line. It's still that way and in more sectors than just telecom. I remember putting in a lot more hours than 40 per week when working for mining companies in the bush. You had no choice. Not all Canadian workers are unionized. That's the reality of it.


Lou Arab
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Joined: Jul 25 2001

Hey!  This thread isn't leisurely at all!

 

Maybe there is something over in babble banter, or the mid east threads.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Plus, it's probably not leisure time - people enjoying the sun drinking gin - they are worried about. For that they have bread and circuses.

It is the prospect of people doing more for themselves and less paying others to do it for them, and worse - devoting some of their time to their own work, helping others, and organizing.

 


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Almost but not quite.  I think they want more Canadians to have even more leisure time if only during this interim period while governments deliberately and thoroughly bankrupt themselves. The new way is to make companies and bankers richer and governments poorer, as in more indebted to bondholders, foreign banks, and less able to fund social programs. Social programs and the commons are highly coveted by private enterprise. Social programs and public services could easily be run as "efficiently" as their monetary and banking system currently being run into the ground on purpose and for a purpose.

"They" want more workers working fewer hours, and even fewer workers in general and paying fewer taxes for the maintenance those things which they want to hand off to "the market", like health care and education, water but not sewers, day care etc.

The new business model is this: debt = wealth creation. Debt paves the way for their market ideology. There is no law or even a general rule that says governments should be run like businesses. No viable business would allow its CEO and CFO to throw the company into debt to the tune that Ottawa and the provinces are today and since about 1975. They may tell us that they are working toward more efficient government, but what they really mean is less government and sabotaging their own ability to pay for the things which make life more affordable and leisurely for the large majority of us. What they did in 1990s Russia they are doing to Americans today. And whatever EU bankers and technocrats can extract from workers there will, and our plutocracy has high hopes for this part of the world, will become a model of austerity for North America. Debt equals wealth creation, and public debt is considered premium debt. The privatization of money creation was supposed to make economies more efficient, and this is the result. It paves the way for their market ideology. They will eventually want every waking moment of our lives to become a market transaction.


Mr.Tea
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Joined: Jul 9 2011

Catchfire wrote:

 if production and efficiency have been improving for well over a century, why aren't our lives a lot eaiser?

I think they are. When I want a glass of water, I walk to one of the 6 taps in my house and turn it on, rather than walking miles to a well to fill a bucket. I can get anywhere I want to go fairly efficiently. It used to take months to cross an ocean. Today, if I wanted to go from Toronto to Paris, I could be there tomorrow. With a ticket I booked while sitting on my couch. 

So technology has enabled us to have easier lives. I think it's our mindsets that forces us to complicate things. So, yes, it's great to have a smartphone that means you're always connected. But, for some people, this means they choose to never take a break or relax and that what was supposed to make life easier has made it more complicated.


Jacob Two-Two
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Joined: Jan 16 2002

We had indoor plumbing and jet planes fifty years ago, and one person's income was easily enough to buy a house and raise a family. Why has everything become so much harder since then?


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Before the Net people worked 9 to 5 and were considered off duty after working normal business hours. Invention of the lightbulb screwed-up people's circadian rhythms and immune systems by making nightshifts at the factory and steel mills feasible. And up to the late 1980s or so employers didn't expect to hear from or see their workers until the next day unless they were 1980's Wall Street traders and Bay Street bankers. Today all that is changed. Today people are "connected" and could expect to be summoned at any time by their bosses, the wife, family, lovers, a favourite credit collector, the doctor's office, the dog's doctor, and a list of people who wouldn't have had 24-7 access to you a decade or two before. That's stress that didn't exist for people from the stone age to the 1980's. In this way technology seems to be making life more stressful not easier for people.


Michelle
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Joined: May 10 2001

Jacob Two-Two wrote:

We had indoor plumbing and jet planes fifty years ago, and one person's income was easily enough to buy a house and raise a family. Why has everything become so much harder since then?

If we lived as simply as we did fifty years ago (without buying so much crap), one income would still be enough to buy a house and raise a family if it was a "middle-class" family.  It was never "easy" to buy a house and raise a family - and for many families, it was never possible even in those days (see the last paragraph of this post).

According to The Story of Stuff, we now buy twice as much stuff as we did in the 1950's.  That might be something to look at.  When people start to "need" all the crap in the dollar store, and "need" a closet filled with twice as many clothes as we used to buy, then it takes a lot of minimum wage workers here and sweatshops overseas to provide them at a cheap enough cost to encourage you to buy way more than you need.  But even at that cheap cost, we still spend way more than we should on crap we don't need.

Also, with one person home (and let's not think of those as the good old days, because you know who was stuck at home barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, right?), people didn't buy lunches at work, people tended to eat supper at home instead of ordering in because they're exhausted from working all day and from the commute, etc.  And cooking at home is way cheaper.  And when people cooked at home, they didn't cook gourmet Food Network foodie-snob stuff with expensive ingredients, at least not very often.  The height of dinner party sophistication was jellied salad. 

Doing laundry is time-consuming, so it's easier to have way more clothes than you need so you can last for two weeks before spending some Saturday when you have enough energy to do laundry all day. So when one person stays home and takes care of that and the cooking and cleaning, it's cheaper.

People also didn't have $20,000 to $80,000 student loan debts - mortgages without houses.

My family could live on my income quite nicely, mortgage, student loan and all, if we were as frugal as the 50's, and I had a 50's housewife to look after me.  The "affordability" of living on one income depended on the unpaid full-time labour of women. 

And that was for middle-class, mostly white families.  There were many, many families, even in the 50's, that depended on two incomes to make ends meet.  Women have been working outside the home even back in the days of "one-income families".  It was mostly white, middle-class to upper middle-class families where you could make ends meet on one income.  Back in those days, those one-income families had lots of racialized women working full-time doing domestic labour for them.  For those women's families, and for poverty-stricken white families as well, there was never a golden age of one-income families.


Michelle
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Joined: May 10 2001

If you can't fix it, you don't own it.

An interesting podcast episode from The Story of Stuff website, about how so many things are made to be thrown away instead of fixed.

 


Ghislaine
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Joined: Feb 15 2008

Well said, Michelle. My hubby and I have currently embarked on a project of living as frugally as possible, learning how to grow as much food as possible with the hopes of me being able to stay with the kiddies for a at least a few years once my student loans arepayed off (also upped this payment above the minimum). 

It is very tough! Especially with the current schedule where we both work 40-60 hrs a week and would love to just eat out a lot of nights. We have made a slow-cooker schedule with inexpensive meats and that helps (coming home and smelling supper makes a HUGE difference to one's state of mind in the evening). I think when both parents work, you really want to just get to spend time with the kid(s) on the weekend/evenings...not work at cooking, cleaning, etc. That is a challenge as well. 

The "stuff" part is so hard. For one small example, I have an older cell phone (probably 10 yrs) that has no smart options and which I just do pay as you go, for approx. 20$/mo. You would not believe how many people suggest I just buy a new one or cannot believe how I can "live like that".  Or how many people suggest just charging a trip south in the winter on credit cards. Once the credit cards are payed off, we plan on ripping up all but one and paying the full balance each month. 

We are learning and improving as we go, but it is difficult. 


Boom Boom
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Joined: Dec 29 2004

I remember the 1950s and 1960s well. My best friend and I between 1959 and 1964 used to do comparsions between our two families, because we were fairly well off - his dad was a credit manager at Canada Packers, and my dad was an author and archivist. My mother also worked - at the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (now StatsCan). neither of us lived in a house full full of crap like we do nowadays - the emphasis back then was to get a nice piece of property and build a really nice house with a garden out back (this was in the woods, in an area that later became a suburb of Ottawa). Coincidentally, a popular magazine back then was Better Homes and Gardens. Really, compared to today, our two houses would be called almost bare, just decent furniture - no crap at all, other than the latest in televisions, which, back then, wasn't saying much. What made our lives worthwhile was easy access to conveniences such as the local sportsplex with swimming pools, track, tennis, etc, shopping malls, libraries, YM/YWCA, and so on. I think we (the entire family) were more active in sports back then. And we had our own personal library well stocked with all kinds of genres including two or more encyclopedias. Encyclopedia salesmen were everywhere back then. Children's toys were simple, too: Lionel trains and Meccano building sets (Barbie dolls came later...).

Nowadays, 50+ years later, even here on the isolated Quebec coast when I visit a younger family, I am astonished at all the crap everywhere - computers all over the place, lots of televisions with attachments - Nintendo and other computer games, wires and cables everywhere. Not very many books. Just electronics everywhere you look - including ugly satellite dishes outside the house. The only gardens I see are tended by older folks like myself.


Mr.Tea
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Joined: Jul 9 2011

I don't think it's just hte extra "stuff" and "junk" though that is making two incomes necessary and causing us to work longer hours. Housing has simply gotten so expensive, especially in major centres. My wife and I have a higher combined income than my parents had and we couldn't afford to buy the house that I grew up in if it went on the market and which my parents bought just over 20 years ago. In those 20 years, the value has doubled, whereas average incomes haven't even kept up with inflation.

I also think things aren't really built to last anymore, which forces you to keeo buying new stuff. Most of hte furniture in my parents' house is 20 years old. They've driven the same cars as long as I remember.


Boom Boom
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Joined: Dec 29 2004

Yeah, housing prices are just unreal. The home we built cost about $28,000 in 1959 to complete. I've gone back and seen it on the market for as high as $200,00.00. That's insane. We should have just kept it, but my parents kept moving from one area of Ottawa to the next, including the suburb of Kanata.

As for cars, look at the classic cars of the 1950s and 1960s. It's hard to imagine anything from Detroit or Windsor from 1980 onwards becoming valued as a classic, except some Mustangs and Corvettes.

 


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Yep my dad never bought a new car. I have a black and white photo of me when I was 5 sitting somewhere inside the engine compartment of a big red Chevy. Best car for repairing was the VW Beetle according to Dad. Fix it easily and drive it anywhere. Dad was a jack of all trades. And a few of the neighbors depended on him to fix their plumbing etc. Some of the houses in the old neighborhood in northern Ontario were little better than shacks then. In the 1950s through to the late 60's and 70's there were still ditches running down the street. Some homes still had outhouses, and septic tanks with indoor toilets were considered modern facilities. Back then every other family built their own homes and additions. And building codes were lacking and-or just not enforced. I read about one DIY from the 1970's where the guy connected a number of electrical appliance extension chords together and wired them to the existing house wiring and then sealed it all up behind the gyprock and painted over. Aluminum wiring caused a few electrical fires, too.


Boom Boom
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Joined: Dec 29 2004

We always had a new car in our familiy. 1956 Dodge, 1961 Pontiac (in candy apple red!), 1965 Dodge, 1970 Chrysler. After my dad died, mum went sporty and got a hot new Camaro. She enterered the Pontiac and Dodge in drag races, by the way. My brothers and I were also car buffs - one brother entered drag races, my other brother and I entered sports car rallies, hillclimbs, and ice races - in our new 1966 and 1968 Mini Coopers. I think our mum was cool, the only female drag racer in Ottawa at the time. My dad was crippled in the war, couldn't drive.


kropotkin1951
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Joined: Jun 6 2002

I think that the 1980's housing crash in BC was partly caused by the easing of the absurd mortgage rules to allow two incomes to be used when figuring out mortgage eligibility. Prior to that second incomes, which were almost all women's, were not counted.  Shortly after the change a bidding war started and the prices rose so that within a couple of years instead of one income two was required.  When that steep rise in house prices met a steep rise in interest rates many people lost everything they had invested in their homes and simply walked away from mortgages and declared bankruptcy.  But that is the type of unintended consequences that happen in a warped system like capitalism that turns everything into a speculative venture.

I am retired but my wife still works. It is my responsibility to make sure that when she gets home from her high stress job she has nothing to do except relax.  I do all the domestic drudgery and the cooking and shopping.  She was a single parent for years and she tells me that she always dreamed of having a "wife" at home. I think the hardest part of working is meal preparation.  When I was a single parent in a professional job I hired people to cover for me when I had to put in long hours prepping for advocacy work so it wasn't as hard for me. 

When I worked construction I got used to going to remote areas and living in a camp with a good kitchen.  Get off work, get a shower, go to supper and then relax for whatever was left of the evening.  When I worked in Lloydminster though, the town had too many empty apartments so the construction companies were told they couldn't run a camp because the town needed to benefit from the construction project.  It was the hardest job I ever worked on.  After 10 to 12 hours of working to then have to go home and prepare food was draining. I found that the leisure time freed up from not having to cook when working long hours made a big difference in how tired I was and how stressed out I was on the job.  It is why my wife never has to cook or think about food when she comes home.  If we lived more in community then meals in a common kitchen with your neighbours could provide a way of sharing the workload so that people who would never get a break can come home and just sit down for a meal.


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

I think the hardest job I ever had was sorting logs. It was then I developed strength in my lower back, shoulders and arms. Climbing steel was pretty good workout, too. I was like a 180-pound cat then. Big appetite all the time.


Boom Boom
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Joined: Dec 29 2004

I worked with a demolition team two summers to help pay college expenses. Using a heavy sledge hammer and lifting heavy debris  8 hours a day, six days a week - that will build upper body strength! Probably why I was inducted into the Mob. :spy


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Yikes! Surprised I think the most enjoyable job from a leisurely POV was working at the greenhouses and tree seedling nursery near the edge of town. It was seasonal work and about a dozen of us at any one time. There were two beaches close by for cooling off after work. We were lowly paid, but we had fun.


Red Tory Tea Girl
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Joined: Feb 15 2010

Quote:
I agree that the point is pretty simple, and actually just underlines the key contradiction of capitalism, which Michelle nailed early on: if production and efficiency have been improving for well over a century, why aren't our lives a lot eaiser?

For one, look at the wage GDP ratio. [NEVER MIND, MY BRAIN INVENTED A FACT]. The average adult works about 1000 hours a year, but the average employed adult works about 1800. While we can't just put everyone on part time hours (industrial organization doesn't work well that way) we can provide income supports that ensure that those not working can enjoy a reasonable standard of living, instead of only extending that particular method of job and utility sharing to those in long-term relationships.


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