It is safe to say that we conquered the cheap revolution. Everything from MP3s to food to automobiles are cheaper than ever. Food production has declined from 97% of our economy to less than 3%. This is an age of affluence.
What do you get for the person that has everything?
After you get your three automobiles, four TVs and computers in every room of your house what is left to buy?
There is a growing movement of perpetual travelers living an anywhere lifestyle by living cheaply and shunning material possessions. Many, including myself, are finding that it can be cheaper to travel and live abroad just by getting off of the consumerism bandwagon.
Cutting out a significant part of consumption means that it is possible to work much less as well. It was less than a century ago that 40 hour workweeks were legislated in the US. Prior to that, it was normal for even children to work 60 plus hours per week in terrible working conditions.
We were able to cut back from 60 to 40 hour workweeks, what will happen when we cut back to 30 or even 20 hours per week of work? France is on the forefront with a 35 hour workweek and several weeks of vacation per year. When will it arrive in other developed nations? More importantly, what will we do with the extra time?
The Meaning Economy
Today, the meaning is the message. The “message” of the Internet’s social revolution is more meaningful work, economics, politics, society, and organization. It promises radically more meaning: to make stuff matter, once again, in human terms, not just financial ones.
It is clear that we are reaching the top of the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. All of our physical needs have been met ten-fold, now we are focusing on self-actualization and finding real meaning in our lives.
That meaning is not coming from buying more things or having more leisure time. Quality of life is not measured by how many calories we consume, how many hours we spend in front of the TV or how many stamps we have in our passports. What are the new metrics? What is the next incarnation of the American Dream?
The End of Work
Consider all the non-economic value that is being created by bloggers and users of social media around the world. There are millions of people contributing free content and services without direct or immediate personal gain. If that is hard to imagine, spend some time on Wikipedia and try to formulate a guess on the number of volunteer man-hours that have been invested.
There will always be economic exchanges between people, however I think we are just starting to see the value of non-monetary transactions. We give because it gives us pleasure, not because it puts money into our bank accounts. Personal development, stronger relationships and contribution are becoming more important requisites than just a paycheck. More people will be working less simply because traditional industrial age employment is becoming less necessary.
I have heard a lot of disagreement with this contention but consider technological advancements in every industry. Less man hours are required to produce everything imaginable. Even Henry Ford’s assembly line cut the man hours required to build a car from 12.5 to 1 hour and 33 minutes. Those freed up hours have always been employed to produce even more goods and services however, there is a limit to the amount we can consume and to what the environment can sustain. Perhaps this will finally be the first generation to consume less than the previous.
In the future, I think the turning of the 21st Century will be marked as the start of the quest for meaning. I wonder how long it will take to purge our industrial age mindsets from the collective psyche?