Work less, consume less, live more… This simple string of words is fast becoming my personal motto as I move forward into the decade of my 50’s. Like many conscientious adults I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours chasing after a living which I thought would give my family and me a better life. Now, with the end of that journey visible on the horizon, I’m concerned that I may have wasted a good deal of the past on a treadmill of promise, without much real return in terms of the type of results I might smile about on my deathbed. Working to buy in order to satisfy that fleeting sense of joyful stimulation which comes of anything new and different has always felt shallow to me. Though it sounds corny, I really do wish for long walks on the beach, as well as more time to think, rest, read, laugh and let my mind sparkle a bit in the life delights which no credit card can buy. I’m resolved to make this a reality, and I think I may have found a lifestyle more in keeping with my vision for the last half of life: The 20 hour work week.
This news article describes a think-tank meeting held earlier this year at the London School of Economics, in which experts wrestled with the weighty problems of joblessness, pollution, individual and societal well-being as well as the challenge of integrating the myriad benefits of increased technological efficiency into a society in serious need of relief. The group suggests that reduced working hours might be a step in the right direction, opening the door to novel concepts such as work-share and perhaps reducing health care costs through decreased job-related stress and a greater sense of personal well-being. On the surface this idea may sound a bit naive and worthy of critisism from those who wonder how individuals who work less could possibly afford a modern lifestyle, let alone save for retirement and maintain necessities such as comprehensive health care coverage. This concern is legitimate and speaks to the fact that the 20 hour work week may not be for everyone, perhaps only for those who are willing to adopt the oft-quoted suggestion of Henry David Thoreau who admonished individuals to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” In this blog post I will share my thoughts on this subject as well as put the idea to the test via some hard number crunching and examination of real world living scenarios. So if you’re ready, let’s ask and attempt to answer the question “Is the 20 hour work week really possible?”
How do you use your free time? Many of us occupy our leisure hours by spending the wages we earn at work. This is an understandable choice given that shopping seems a fitting reward for the sacrifice of personal time and energy we make between the hours of 9 and 5. Though this is true for many, there are those among us who have other ideas. There are so many things we can do in life which cost little or nothing such as reading, writing, learning, talking, walking, visiting with friends, making new friends, resting or just hanging out which may give us pleasure as well as enhance our overall sense of well-being. Some activities such as gardening, woodworking and art may also provide real gain in our lives through the direct consumption of what we grow or cash trade if we can sell our produce or wares. And what a great thing it would be to have enough extra time to explore and discover new interests throughout life, to try, and fail, and to perhaps one day succeed at making a living doing something we love. This worthy goal is something few ever realize, in part perhaps, because their lifestyle demands so much work and leaves so little time for more personally fullfilling pursuits and exploration.
The solution seems simple. If we can just reduce our consumption through simplified living then this should translate into less work and more free time. Important steps include eliminating consumer debt, moving to or staying in a smaller home, keeping a less expensive car (or no car at all), and living within a tighter budget focused on the things we really need. Finally, we should think about and implement a well-considered plan of living; a lifestyle which includes pleasant and useful ways to make use of the copious free time to come. In essence, it all comes down to deciding how you want to spend YOUR LIFE in the time you have left? Though this approach may sound a bit impractical and self-serving, it is however a strategy we should consider if we hope to sustain our growing population on a planet with frail ecosystems and very limited resources.
“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.” -H.D. Thoreau
So it’s time to put this idea to some sort of test. Is it really possible to get by in our modern age on an income derived from working just 20 hours a week? First off, we have to face the fact that without a full-time commitment it might be hard to find a job which pays more than the minimum wage. In addition, few employers will extend benefits such as health care and retirement to a part-time worker. With this in mind we’ll base our test on an individual with just such a job, seeking to get by with the most inexepensive, yet reasonable accomodations possible (few are likely willing to live as Spartan a life as Mr. Thoreau on Walden pond). In keeping with our dream of simplicity we’ll forgo any automobile and instead opt for a monthly commuter pass. Utilities and other essentials will be based on community averages available on the Internet. Health care costs are our own responsibility and listed numbers are again based on area averages. Our target community will be the small city of Bremerton outside Seattle, Washington on the west coast of the United States near the area my wife and I are planning to relocate in a few years. After compiling the numbers I came up with the following rough chart where items in red are variables and the blocked cells are key input and result numbers.
According to this model it appears that the 20 hour work week simply will not work in this area unless steps are taken to drastically reduce some or all of the variable costs. After the chart above sobered me up a bit I decided to adjust the “Work Hours/week” variables until each scenario was just above the break-even point. Here are the results, which set me back in my chair:
Check out those work hours! Clearly the culprit in both scenarios is the minimum wage and lack of benefits. Since it looks like we’ll have to work more than 40 hours a week we might find some relief if we can secure a full-time job with better pay and benefits. Gaining a full-time job however would render this little experiment a failure, as the whole goal was to work less and enjoy life more! If my facts and figures are accurate then it seems that the dream of the 20 hour work week in the outskirts of Seattle is simply not possible, unless one is willing to significantly compromise even the minimum standard quality of living currently enjoyed in the United States.
Before giving up hope I thought it might be nice to dream up some really extreme living situation to plug into our spreadsheet in order to see if there was any hope at all of pulling this off. Just when my mind was beginning to wonder after little hand-built cabins in the woods, a friend who knew of my project shared with me an astonishing opportunity. A 120 year old farm in Wisconsin with house, outbuildings and tillable land for just $2,500.00 a year! This was perfect so I dug up as many stats for the area as I could and put together the following chart:
Sadly, even this scenario proved unworkable though it was better than the situation in Washington State. The difficulty here once again seems tied to the (still lower) minimum wage which simply cannot provide enough money to keep even a simple lifestyle afloat. But what if you’re the type of person who can really squeeze value from every dollar you earn? Might it then be possible to get by without working full time? Out of curiosity I tried halving the expenses in both the Washington and Wisconsin scenarios. I discovered that in this very austere (desperate?) situation the single and couple in Washington could just scrape by at 32 and 26 hours a week respectively, while the Wisconsin situation was 34 and 27 hours. In summary then, the numbers clearly show that the 20 hour work week is undoable in the scenarios I have described, except perhaps at the most extreme end of frugality. Does this mean we should abandon hope and relenquish the best part of most days to the necessity of earning a buck? Perhaps, but there remains another way to achieve full or partial financial freedom.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage this situation I tossed in the expected income from my retirement plan as well as my personal savings and investments. When I did this – though I can’t enjoy such benefits for a few more years – the numbers finally worked out in such a way that my wife and I may not have to work at all. How curious that after all of this dreaming and scheming I’m left with an answer discovered by others long before I took up the question. A concept which has been advocated, tested and recommended by individuals and institutions across many cultures and generations. The idea to simply begin early laying away reserves to be used later in life as relief against the necessity of work. To manage savings wisely and to augment these with home ownership and other forms of investment. Perhaps only then will it be possible to reduce and perhaps eliminate the necessity of hard work. This doesn’t mean that Thoreau’s lesson of simplicity is incorrect or should be ignored. Indeed, if we seek to make our living efficient and spend time finding ways to enjoy our free time which are inexpensive or free then perhaps the day when we are partially or fully liberated from the necessity of hard work will come sooner. The 20 hour work week is indeed a possibility; though it will not come easy and we will need to work hard and live smart to earn and be worthy of such freedom.