I recently wrote about the difference between a job and work; between “useless toil and useful work.” And why do we work? When did we start to devalue leisure time? A hundred years ago people in the I.W.W. argued for more leisure rather than higher wages. Keynes talked about the ten hour week. So when were basic needs replaced by wants? Adam Curtis in “The Century of Self” speculates that it started in the 1920s with the rise of advertising. But the real push to go beyond needs seems to have occurred in the 1950s.
I just finished Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s. Like all his books, it is filled with amazing detail, hilarious stories, and keen social commentary. For white folks in America things were pretty good in the 1950s. Bryson remarks that their basic needs were being met (although he thinks the toys of his childhood like Mr. Potato Head and the Slinky really sucked). But instead of being content they started living large. They went from not needing a car at all in cities with streetcars and rail service to buying two cars. They needed bigger refrigerators and more gadgets. “…televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it.” That meant they needed bigger places for all the new stuff. And so they worked more and women started working too. They were sold the idea of “careers” which were jobs where you could “get ahead”. Continue reading