Title frame for ‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.17
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The Harried Leisure Class
Staffan Burenstam Linder (1970)

Published in 1970 by Swedish economist Steffan Linder, this book examines how society has become ‘time poor’, and therefore has become increasingly trapped in the complex ‘rationalisations’ of the modern economy.

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The first in this series of three reviews, Marshall Sahlins’ ‘Stone Age Economics’, considered how ancient peoples lived. In this review we consider, ‘The Harried Leisure Class’, an obscure but insightful book on ‘time’ as a limit to the consumer lifestyle. Though popular at the time, its problematic arguments have fallen into relative obscurity today.

Front cover of ‘The Harried Leisure Class’ (1970)
‘The Harried Leisure Class’:

First Edition, Columbia University Press, 1970. ISBN 9780-2310-3302-2.

Paperback Edition, Columbia University Press, 1971. ISBN 9780-2310-8649-3.

As Linder says in the introduction:

“We have long expressed the hopes that the elimination of material cares would clear the way for a broad cultural advancement… The tendency is the reverse… The cause of these and similar anomalies lies in a circumstance that has been entirely ignored, namely the increasing scarcity of time. The limited availability of time and the increasing claims made on it mean that our affluence is only partial and not total as we seem to believe. Our affluence only takes the form of access to ‘goods’. The idea of ‘total affluence’ is a logical fallacy.”

In the Twentieth Century economic growth had been built upon ‘scientific management’, guiding the use of workers and materials to increase productivity. This was when, in the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of the ‘leisure society’ arose – that productivity would increase so much that people would need to work very few hours to have a comfortable lifestyle.

Unsurprisingly, this economic Utopia did not materialise.

Instead, growing wealth fuelled an endless cycle of increasing consumption which, elevated to a secular cult, became an end in itself.

‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.17
Staffan Burenstam Linder
(economist, educator, writer)
13th September 1931 -
22nd July 2000.

Linder argues that as it costs more time to maintain the ‘stuff’ in our lifestyle, we can earn more from working those hours, and so the pressure will be to use throw away/cheap goods and buy new ones. Essentially, Linder is relating the contradictions between work in the modern world and the primary reward of this work – ‘having more stuff’.

As Linder says:

“Changes in the average maintenance per product will be determined by the sector in which productivity is increasing most rapidly… In this situation it will pay to reduce the maintenance per product and instead devote a corresponding amount of time to highly productive work that will offer income to replace goods that needed service. This is the ‘use and throw away’ system.”

In that sense affluence is only illusory. In a society where ‘time poverty’ dominates an individual’s decisions it inevitably leads towards less ‘culturally refined’ ways of living. A time-poor society doesn’t value the quality or the creativity of certain goods, and this has a negative feedback in terms of our quality of life. People accept poor quality or poorly performing services as a necessary trade-off to balance the economic pressures of daily life created by time poverty.

As Linder says:

“The most important way consumers can reduce the time required to shop is to limit the time spent thinking about what to buy… One comes to rely on increasingly rough rules of thumb… Reduced time for reflection previous to a decision would apparently entail a growing irrationality. However, since it is extremely rational to consider less and less per decision, there exists a rationale of irrationality.”

For ‘rules of thumb’ consider the role of branding – and how that simplification ties into decision-making, yet arguably a less diverse set of consumer choices.

Modern commentators always compare the lives of people today with the early Industrial Revolution – where eighty- to ninety-hour working weeks, child labour, an unsafe working conditions were standard. So why not compare conditions today to pre-industrial times?

As Marshall Sahlins describes, in pre-agricultural societies people may have only required two to four hours of work per day to secure their material needs for life. By the Medieval period the average peasant may have worked four or five hours per day on average for their landlord, usually concentrated into three or four months of the year, but the rest of their time was still theirs to serve their own material needs.

It was the removal of common land, and the movement into urbanised communities, which created the dependency culture that necessitated the harsh working conditions of early industrialisation. They had no choice: It was work, or starve.

What Linder argues is that while late industrialisation may have become more ‘economically civilised’, that compulsive force organising our lifestyle has not gone away. Instead, the modern economy drives people to irreconcilable, and thus stressful decisions in order to achieve impossible ends.

As Linder says:

“The sharper the conflict between the declining utility of additional income and the rising desires to increase well-being, the greater the propensity there will be for increasing economic growth by all possible means. Cultural development, other than as a luxury for the few, has perhaps never been more than a dream… Economic growth has become an overriding end – not a means.”

Linder challenges the idea that progress inevitably brings greater leisure or ‘cultural’ time. Instead, to maintain a socially-driven compulsion for consumption, the modern world maintains its focus on material consumption as the sole metric for ‘progress’ – contrary to the idea that progress must improve society’s refinement.

Fifty-two years after its publication, ‘The Harried Leisure Class’ is just as valuable today for its insightful critique of the myths of consumer capitalism. As ‘The Limits to Growth’ choke economic ‘progress’ its arguments highlight how people may react to these pressures; and whether the maintenance of this lifestyle will drive people to ‘self-optimise’ a decline in their well-being to maintain that economic state; rather than abandon it for another, more ‘culturally civilised’ option by refusing to comply with the growth imperative.