Many years ago, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that society would become so prosperous and efficient as a result of the industrial revolution that people would hardly have to work. Those who once used to work long, hard hours only to barely make enough to survive and provide for their households would now be able to spend more time with their families and spend more money on goods. Given these facts, it seems completely reasonable for Keynes to assume that more time and money would ultimately lead to a higher standard of living.
For a while, it seemed that Keynes was right: Wages were increasing along with productivity from 1947 up until 1973 (where they have remained stagnant since) and Europeans were beginning to enjoy more leisure and goods. Americans, however, have been spending less time on leisure and more money on goods.
Perhaps the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality of many individuals in America — or individuals’ sensitivity to others’ consumption — may be to blame for this obsession over material items, which has pressured many to go back to work in order to obtain more money for goods. It is also reasonable to assume that America’s ever-growing wealth inequality has worsened this problem over the past few decades, as well as the glorification of wealth in popular culture.
Europeans on the other hand have enjoyed more goods and more leisure. This may partially explain why Europeans experience higher standards of living, despite their countries not being nearly as wealthy as the United States. Generally speaking, the amount of time spent socializing with friends and family and enjoying art are crucial to the quality of one’s life, and a lack of social life can not be offset with more consumption. In fact, over-consumption can further deteriorate one’s quality of life.
However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to work or go to school from their homes, creating more flexible schedules and free time as a result. Although it is currently unclear on whether the pandemic has had a significant influence on American consumerism, what we do know is that there has been more time for families to bond at home, and a vast majority of Americans enjoy working from home.
A recent poll reveals that 75% of Americans working from home due to COVID-19 would prefer to continue to do so at least half of the time. And a vast majority of employers and employees have also reported similar levels or even increases in productivity since workplaces have shifted to homes.
Although it is still early to tell, it is highly probable that COVID-19 has forever transformed workplaces and schools across America, allowing for more flexible schedules and free time. I am fairly certain that with this extra time, Americans may finally be able to recognize the value of leisure in life and replace it over rampant consumerism.