Mar 9, 2009

Work Less, Be Happier?

One of the more positive developments of The Great Recession is that people will likely start to work less hours. One of the great anomalies of the post-war era is that for the first time in history, the wealthy classes worked longer hours than the working classes. And both were putting in some serious hours, particularly here in the U.S.

But all around me, I see people questioning just what it buys them. A realization that if you’re making enough to pay your mortgage, take vacations, not stress too much about supermarket prices and still have some money left over for savings, any incremental increase in income isn’t going to come with a commensurate increase in overall happiness.

I see a gradual turn towards accepting that things like spending time with family, joining the Friends of the Library, the Elks Club, or even just reading for pleasure (online or off) offer far more psychic benefits than any of the pointless luxury items and services that extra income can buy. (And there's nothing like a looming bout of unemployment to hammer that home.) Along with the dawning realization that it’s a long way from senior partner to Mr. Howell and that winding up with an SUV the size of a yacht is a whole lot different than winding up with an actual yacht itself.

Two losers in this equation are purveyors of mass-market luxury goods themselves (not quite the oxymoron it sounds like) as their products suffer from loss of cachet, and purveyors of time-saving labor for the upper middle classes: everything from lawn services to cleaning crews to take-out restaurants.

The length of the Great Recession promises to be the deciding factor in whether these changes in our national psyche really stick. A recovery within the next two years makes them a temporary aberration, while a slower turnaround could result in a more permanent shift in behavior.