Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

A simple lifestyle is more complicated than it looks
Once upon a time, most consumers will tell you, life was simpler. We spent less time doing and more time being. But life today seems like a never-completed to-do list, and people have had it. “Balance!” is the cri de coeur rising from focus groups across the land.
The people at Time Inc. are among those heeding the call. The result is Real Simple, a new magazine due on newsstands in late March and dedicated to providing simplifying solutions to complex lifestyles. According to advance publicity, Real Simple will address the myriad longings that animate this quest for balance: the desire for less clutter and less pressure just to get things done; the hunger for more time to spend as we want and more succor for the soul.
Sounds great. But before we get to solutions, we would do well to ask what forces are throwing our world out of whack in the first place.
Is it work?
Millions of time-pressured heads of households with post-war memories of Dad getting home at five think so. And many social scientists agree, holding that working hours in the U.S. began expanding in the 1970s after decades of decline.
Yet work may not be the culprit. According to the diary-based “Use of Time” study conducted by University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson, we actually work 2.8 hours a week less than we did in the ’60s. However much that seems to contradict our experience, it is plausible. After all, we know the use of new media supplements rather than supplants use of the old. The modern worker bidding on eBay and catching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is finding extra time somewhere.
But if we aren’t working more, why do we feel like we are?
I suggest that we do, in fact, spend more time laboring these days–not on production, but on
consumption.
It’s the old story of infinite options and finite minutes. Even if all you do after work is sit like a slug in front of the TV, you’ve already had a slew of decisions to make in choosing not to pursue other diversions. No wonder it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Strange to say, one of the biggest robbers of free time is, of all things, “convenience.” You can bank from home in the wee hours, check your stock portfolio in the car and send e-mail greeting cards on the weekend. If you had to accomplish these tasks within “regular business hours,” you’d have more free time after work. In a 24/7 world, it’s no surprise we feel harried 24/7.
Another time thief is the aestheticization of daily life–our growing appetite for more beauty and refinement in our everyday existence. Take food, that fundamental human need. Anyone shopping for the basics of the food larder–oil, vinegar, mustard, coffee, olives–encounters a proliferation of options distinguished by differences in grade, origin, ingredients and price.
It’s an extension of what I call the “Vintage Wine Syndrome,” which has made wine buying the province of self-made experts who have clocked precious time educating themselves.
What would we do with our time if we weren’t choosing between Umbria and Calabria olive oil?
Many say they would spend it with the family. Yet family life today has become another platform for time-consuming rituals of improvement. True, in the past Dad might have made it home by five. But as many baby boomers can attest, he didn’t necessarily spend those long evenings in meaningful interaction with the wife and kids. Their job, meanwhile, was to make sure nothing encroached on his hard-earned rest.
Family life wasn’t the nonstop self-fulfillment project it is today. In the days before anyone uttered the word “parenting,” Dad’s job was to put a roof over the family’s heads and food on the table. Real simple.
To remedy life’s pressures and complexity, Time Inc.’s latest launch offers a familiar homeopathic cure for the ills of consumption: more consumption. Or, as the press release puts it, consumption of “quality” rather than quantity. Yet quality consumption is the hardest work of all, requiring more knowledge, more experience and, above all, more money–which, returning to the initial problem, we’ll have to work more to get.
Getting spiritual satisfaction from consumer choices is far more labor-intensive than just filling material needs. Which is another way of saying the Real Simple concept taps into the dirty little secret behind the contemporary consumer’s search for balance:
It’s not about wanting less, but wanting more.