Elizabeth Dunn & David McRaney – you have some great advice but why you hatin’ on downshifting?!?!
I came across a very much on the whole excellent podcast the other day thanks to Done By Forty’s excellent post called You’re Not as Busy as You Think You Are. The podcast features David McRaney who is the author of the excellent blog You are not so smart, interviewing Elizabeth Dunn who co-wrote the book Happy Money(<–affiliate link 1), which many of you may have read and sounds like a very good book. Here is a link to the podcast if you want a listen to it (It’s about 45 minutes long so make sure you have a bit of time):
You don’t need to have listened to the podcast to read the rest of this post but I guess it would probably help so you can see whether you agree with me or not.
So as the title suggests there is some great advice in this podcast and presumably the rest of the book. I mean really great advice, most of which you will find yourself nodding along to thinking, hell yea, this validates most of my life choices in the pursuit of FIRE and happiness, etc etc… So it’s all good and definitely worth listening too. But there was one rather large part of it that irked me quite a bit and that was the supposed “debunking” of downshifting at the start of podcast which also got mentioned a few more times throughout the cast. Let’s review some of the comments made.
is the whole premise of downshifting built on a lie?
That is pretty much what David says just before he introduces Elizabeth 2. Fair enough, I’ll keep an open mind and listen to the evidence they present. But what they present actually is evidence for downshifting and not against it IMHO!
Their basic argument is that we have more free time than ever (which is technically true in all fairness), and therefore should quit whining about it and, I dunno, presumably get back to work? Here is the key stat that is mentioned a few times to back this stance up:
The average (American) person has 4 more hours of leisure time a week compared those in the 1960’s
This is presented as an argument that we don’t need to downshift? That we are abundant with time?! Really!?
4 hours in 5 fucking decades!??!?!
Am I the only one thinking that this is totally bullshit considering the productivity gains and massive amounts of wealth that has been generated since those days? It’s not exactly Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren come to pass is it!?
Here are some more bullet points of my thoughts on this:
- Those extra leisure hours could literally all be down to less household maintenance such as washing machines, dishwashers, and faster food prep. Admittedly this is all good for us now but this is nothing to do with working less hours.
- I wasn’t even alive let alone working in the 1960’s so I don’t really care how much free time they had back then anyway. I have no point of reference to those days and only know what I feel right now, which is that we are all as busy as ever.
- A lot of this feeling of busyness is of self imposed such as “oh I have to catch up on watching my TV shows, check my twitter/facebook, or update my apps on my phone” the last of which he even uses as an example in the podcast. But isn’t this an argument for downshifting? Removing the unnecessary things from our lives that add no value to get our time back. That’s the whole fucking point isn’t it?
- And people can’t be blamed too much for getting into all of these things which take up our time anyway; we are bombarded with them left right and centre every day. The amount of TV, games, and media vying for our attention is several orders of magnitude higher than it was in the 1960’s and so even though that is technically leisure time, it is still a massive time suck and can lead to us feeling like we have less time for everything else.
- On the other hand a lot of the extra busyness is imposed by external forces, i.e. work, with many people on call near enough 24/7 with the smartphone acting as their tool of oppression, not just in the gig economy but for anyone who receives work emails or calls on their phone.
- One other point they made was about how much extra time in the day when you are at work do people spend now doing non work related tasks, on the internet, getting coffee, etc… Well yea maybe that is true but again before that I bet people just sat around and chatted more or just worked slower as they knew they had more time to complete tasks… hello again Parkinson’s Law. Are we really supposed to believe goofing off has only existed since the internet was invented? And did people not drink tea or coffee in the 60’s!? 🙂
time abundance and time famine
According to Dunne the more we earn per hour the more we value our time, and therefore time feels more scarce – we are in a “time famine”.
This feels experientially true, although it surely worth noting that coincidentally as most peoples earnings rise throughout their lives you will also find that they find themselves with other responsibilities such as a house, kids and elderly parents to maintain, along with other social contracts they may bind themselves into. This is not to mention the more responsibilities you’d naturally expect someone to have the more they earned anyway. So I’m not sure if this is correlation, causation or most likely a bit of both?
This is demonstrated by a study where 2 groups of people pretend to be consultants and are given a task to do, one group is told they are working for a much larger fee per minute than the other and it turns out that the higher fee group feel much more stressed and had less time to complete the tasks at hand than the lower earning one.
Yet again, if this is not a very strong argument for downshifting then my name is Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tang-
Surely it is far more logical to conclude that, feeling stressed and busy is a bad thing so rather than just telling us to shut up being babies about it because we have more free time than ever, we should actually look at this evidence and start acting in ways that don’t make us feel stressed and busy. How might we do that?
- By saving enough money so that we don’t need to work for it anymore and can work on meaningful stuff for any wage between free and very high 4
- By being frugal enough so we can take jobs regardless of the wage packet as above.
- Or by combining the above two points
- Eliminating time sucking and non-value-adding activities out of your lives
All of the above points encompass part of the downshifting philosophy.
spend your time wisely
They go on to say that you should spend your time more wisely, go on hikes, look at waterfalls, exercising, reading, spending time with loved ones, having sex, donating time to charities. This is the sort of thing that is proven to make us more happy. Great advice!
They then say that people with more time on their hands generally do not this but do things that make them sad such as shopping, working, watching TV, and commuting 5.
Is this really an argument against downshifting? Just because most people don’t spend extra time they get wisely does not mean that attempting to build your life around having more time is fallacious.
In fact I thought the top set of activities is exactly the sort of thing that the downshifting crew are all about, and reducing the bottom set of activities is also something they fully endorse.
money on your mind
They mention that people who are primed with even just thinking about money, even if they don’t really realise it, such as some floating dollar signs on a screensaver, will become more inward looking 6. They will think they are more self sufficient and can buy their way out of anything and so less reliant on others, and it follows then that they kind of care less about others and external things (e.g. the environment).
In other words thinking about money too much can turn you into a bit of an arsehole.
They also say the time equals money viewpoint is a big mistake for happiness because it will stop you from doing things such as volunteering which although doesn’t earn you any money, is a greatly rewarding activity. And even that people start to think doing things like recycling is a waste of time as they presumably could be off earning money elsewhere… *sad face*
So in order to become not only better people but actually happier we should think about money less and also not equate time with money.
This does provide a bit of a catch 22 for the FIRE crowd as we think about money ALOT and also time=money is a big concept to grasp as well. However I believe the two seemingly opposing view points are not at odds with each other. I like to think the FIRE crowd do things that are efficient and logical and so they can see the rational argument to recycle and be good stewards of the environment despite also realising that when they go to work they are trading their time for money, and that in most caess this is not a very good trade.
As a quick aside, I’ve also read similar sentiments to what we’ve discussed in this section in the introduction of the Moneyless Manifesto along with the whole time isn’t money thing – you can read the whole thing free just by clicking on those links!
and so it goes on…
And it goes on and on like this. Almost every single great bit of advice she comes up with is basically an argument on why you would want to downshift IMO. Such as:
- Money doesn’t buy us happiness – Anything over a certain amount (they say $75,000/year of household income) doesn’t move the needle much on happiness. Yes so why not work less rather than try to earn more once you get over this amount?! What might one call that? Oh yea downshifting.
- Buying experiences rather than things. Downshifting inherently requires a bit of minimalism i.e. buying less things
- Buy time when you can – Yes he actually says that as a piece of advice! Isn’t this exactly what downshifting actually is!? Buying your time back instead of things?!
- Paying off (consumer) debt brings you great happiness – I don’t think anyone has downshifted with a boat load of debt to pay off hanging over their shoulders… And clearly this is a prerequisite to any kind of FIRE plan!!!
For a podcast and website that is doggedly focused on how we can stop putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 5, I am still finding this an extremely strange conclusion that they’ve come to regarding downshifting.
Anyway have a listen for yourself and see whether you agree with me?
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- The exact phrase was downshifting is “based on a premise that is not supported by the evidence” ↩
- I am a very fast walker for what it’s worth but mainly because I am always late 🙂 ↩
- Even a very high wage wouldn’t come with as much stress as normal here because we don’t need it ↩
- Erm… not all that sure commuting is a voluntary use of free time but OK then ↩
- I’ve read the same thing recently in Thinking, Fast and Slow(<–affiliate link) – Probably the best book I’ve read in a long long time, and I’m only about 80 pages in so far!!! – which I’m almost certain is citing exactly the same study with the money screen saver. ↩