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16th May 2016

Working and consuming away from progress

Tristan Parsons on the increasing disenfranchisement from progress caused by the economics of work and consumption

Too many people will have missed voting in the recent May elections because they were busy with their work. This common excuse may be considered weak, since polling stations were open until 10pm. However, the working day remains a deterrent, however minor, on some people engaging with the voting process. The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has even proposed that major election days should be national holidays.

This stands as a metaphor for the way in which the nature of our lives places strain on democracy and society. Since the 1960s and 1970s, social capital (the connections we share with each other) has been on the decline.

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam concludes that the major reason for the decline of social capital in the United States (a pattern observable in most Western developed counties) is the progress that women have made into the workplace. Before this change in the labour force, the role of the average woman in a broader societal context was the gluing together of communities and families. Therefore, when this tradition was abandoned, frequencies of community meetings, occasions of having friends over, and numbers of bowling club memberships fell.

This is a strange collision: of the liberalisation of attitude towards women, and the resulting decline of socialising, and thus the encroachment of the shackling effects of individual confinement. Of course neither I nor Putnam are placing blame on women and their dastardly escape from housewifery. Since men and women hold equal capacity for social interaction, it is far more insightful to look at this phenomenon from a gender-neutral (and indeed, non-heteronormative) perspective: because more women are working, average working hours have increased, and as a result, social capital has declined. There are other contributing factors, such as the continuing decline of memberships of trade unions since the 1970s, or low rates of couples living together.

And after the end of the workday, what are the leisure activities most practiced? The average Briton spends eight hours and 41 minutes on media devices per day. Some of the content communicated via these devices is relevant: Television is not an entirely barren desert littered with bland and meaningless entertainment, and social media is not only used for constant observation of the lives of others. But whilst it might be beneficial for one to read a book, or to engage in proactive searching for truths, rather than the passivity of social media-based news, all of these activities are of solitude.

We have built something quite frightening: A way of being that revolves around work and media. It should not surprise us, however. In the developed West, our economies are measured on production and consumption—GDP. The logical conclusion of this philosophy is that the happiest societies are those that produce and consume the most per person. However, the bulk of research points towards the opposite: The most post-materialistic of people are the happiest. Of course, at lower levels of income, financial security is essential, but research also suggests that regardless of one’s wealth, it is social connections that create happy lives.

So, striving for wealth and material consumption is misguided at the individual level. More concerning, however, is that the very means by which high GDP is achieved, namely, work and consumerism, dampen the questioning of this system. Every mass political campaign or movement is inherently social. By spending less time building up social capital, the ability of our societies to take collective action is reduced. Further to this, lower social capital means lower resilience against trouble, because people are less likely to help each other. This trouble might take an environmental form, such as droughts in the South East England or the recent floods in the North of England. Although events such as these do tend to bring communities together in the immediate sense, it quickly fades after the event.

Thus, the present economic system dampens our protest and weakens us against external threat. Media has hooked us in to lethargic hours of acceptance of our condition; governments have actively sought to reduce protest through anti-trade union laws. But the solutions cannot come from the top down. With all the challenges we face, from continuing austerity to climate change, it is imperative that this way of living is changed.

In all of this, there is a risk of romanticising the past and so reducing hope in the present. But there is hope. Today’s youth is the most connected in all of history. Despite its criticisms, social media technologies have the potential to work wonders for organisation, with Egypt’s 2011 uprising often cited as an extreme example of this.

If we can harness the good of social media (and the whole of the Internet, for that matter) when it matters, there is hope for social change: A well organised and more broadly educated public, with the capacity to motivate change.

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