Sustainable Lifestyles: Time, Tasks & Power

From 2012, as a contribution to a discussion on the possibilities of a radical reduction in the length of the working week, a long piece (with references and footnotes!) that tries to connect sustainable lifestyles, consumerism, time use and capitalism.  Oh yes. On re-reading it now, connections to the debate on Universal Basic Incomes and the potential impact of widespread robotics and AI would also appear relevant.

A future sustainable society, howsoever defined, will require at least a majority of citizens, if not all of them, to have ‘sustainable lifestyles’.  Whilst this notion may be difficult to define with consensual precision, its broad characteristics will likely include economic, environmental, social and personal dimensions.  In particular, a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ will certainly entail high levels of personal well-being - otherwise, what would be the point?

As recent attention on well-being is showing[1], issues such as the opportunity to spend time with friends and family, maintaining physical and mental health, and having meaningful work are among the highest priorities for most people.  It does not seem unreasonable, confronted by such evidence, to conclude that, other things being equal, lifestyles in which people work (and commute) fewer hours than they do at present would deliver higher well-being, and thus be more sustainable.

A world in which working hours are markedly reduced will, amongst many other things, be likely to have two important implications for the operation of our economy.  Firstly, whilst there are likely to be significant (re)distributional issues, it is also likely that aggregate earnings are likely to be lower than at present.  Secondly, and in large part as a result of reduced earnings (though it is also likely to be part of the values shift in society that would be associated with the shift towards a radically shorter working week) there would be a dramatic reduction in total consumer spending.

I contend in this essay that the reduction in consumer spending implied by ‘sustainable lifestyles’ and a dramatic reduction in the average working week would, in fact, spell the end of contemporary consumerism.  This would, in turn, represent a system-level threat to modern-day capitalism as a whole, a threat to which the key proponents and beneficiaries of capitalism – notably the large and multi-national corporations – could be expected vigorously to respond.

In short, to plan for and bring about a radical shift in time use, and in the length of the average working week, we need to be concerned with a transformation of the economy.  To pursue the former without having considered the latter would be to doom the project at the outset. Only a radical overhaul of the economic system will create the room for the kinds of changes discussed throughout this report; and only radical changes of this kind will be capable of delivering the improvements in well-being we collectively deserve.

Overhauling the System - Part One

An overhaul of a system requires, first and foremost, an appreciation of that system, its component parts, its method of functioning, and so forth.  Only with such an appreciation is it possible to identify the leverage points within the system[2] that are most likely to be where change can be brought about.

Needless to say, it is far beyond the scope of the present essay fully to articulate an analysis of the current western economic model and all its woes; but key features of this author’s (heterodox[3]) perspective, given our focus on time use, are as follows:

·  The economy is a complex, open system which evolves over time.[4]  Rather than being a system that is perpetually heading in the direction of some sort of idealised equilibrium, it is a system that is shaped by momentum from the past and by the power of the actors and institutions within the system.  Time use within the system is shaped, to a significant degree, by power relations within the system.

·   Individual citizens can be conceptualised as goal-oriented, learning agents.  They are not necessarily ‘rational’, ‘maximising’ or ‘time-consistent’.[5]  Given that their goals are inevitably formulated within the framework of the circumstances in which they find themselves, this means that their goals (such as “be a consumer”) are significantly shaped by the power structures around them.   Citizens are not as ‘free to choose’ as they imagine; demand is not ‘exogenous’; and their control over their own time is limited.

·   Both individuals and institutions within the economic system attempt to achieve their goals or objectives by means of tasks.  Tasks, like behaviours more generally, are clustered; and the nature of the clustering depends upon the goals of the person or institution that is doing the clustering.  The task – or ‘behaviour’ – known as ‘make dinner’ (for example) is a cluster of sub-tasks such as ‘buy ingredients’, ‘select ingredients from the fridge’, ‘prepare the vegetables’ and so forth. Each of these, in turn, sub-divides.  Conversely, the task ‘make dinner’ itself clusters with other behaviours (such as ‘do the laundry’, ‘fix the dripping tap’ etc) into the higher-level behaviour called ‘looking after the family’.

Crucially, decisions about what counts as a ‘task’, how tasks are clustered, how much time is required to undertake a task and whether there should be some sort of financial reward for completing a task are decisions that are taken by individuals and institutions within the system, not outside it.  They are therefore subject to the same power considerations as other features of the economic system. 

·   An important and powerful example of a ‘task cluster’ is the notion of a ‘job’.  A job comprises a set of tasks that need to be completed in pursuit of one or more goals.  In more ordinary vernacular, a job typically refers to the notion of employment in return for some sort of compensation or remuneration.  How many tasks are assembled to comprise a ‘job’, and how much time is required to complete those tasks, is not simply a function of classical supply and demand for labour; it is the outcome of a power struggle between those who want the tasks done (employers, representing organised capital) and those who can undertake the tasks (citizens, as organised labour).[6]

·   The evolution of capitalism over the past thirty to fifty years is such that the power to dictate the tasks, and the terms of those tasks, lies overwhelmingly with capital rather than labour.  Capital – and, by extension, capitalism – is thus shaping time use.

·   (This control over time extends beyond simply the task-cluster known as ‘a job’.  Illich’s notion of ‘shadow work’[7] demonstrates how many other tasks (commuting, eating, resting) are essential if an individual is to be satisfactorily productive whilst doing their ‘job’.  Capitalism’s control over time thus extends well beyond the office, shop or factory floor.)

·   As well as requiring ‘productive labour’, capitalism also requires ‘effective consumption’.  Ideally, any time not devoted to work or shadow work should be devoted to spending.[8]  A key characteristic of modern capitalism is not merely the endless creep of monetisation[9], but the manner in which ‘free time’ has progressively been commodified and converted into an opportunity to be a ‘consumer’.[10]

From this sort of perspective, it is straightforward to conjecture that ‘capitalism’ would resist significant reductions in the length of the average working week.  In its quest for endlessly increasing returns, capital would be endangered by both a reduction in ‘productive work’ and in ‘effective consumption’.
Capitalism is represented most substantially, in the modern age, by the large multi-national corporations (and by the national and international governments that have co-evolved with them).  It is these institutions that we could therefore expect to resist most fiercely the kinds of changes implied by radical reductions in the working week.

Before turning to consider the levers that could be used either to minimise or defuse that resistance, it is appropriate to ask: is there any evidence in support of the perspective I have outlined?

Some evidence

It is not practicable to present evidence in support of all the assertions made in the preceding section.  Nevertheless, I have had the opportunity in recent years through my work at Brook Lyndhurst[11] to undertake a variety of research studies that support important elements of the preceding argument – and also hint at some of the levers by which radical changes in time use might be brought about.

Society as a complex, open, evolving, network-based system of learning agents

On behalf of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Brook Lyndhurst conducted research eventually published under the title “The diffusion of environmental behaviours: the role of influential individuals in social networks”[12].  The year-long study consisted of a large-scale literature review and a programme of primary research.  Building upon an earlier ‘think piece’[13], the study sought to provide a robust theoretical and evidence base for considering the mechanisms by which new environmental behaviours are or are not adopted by different individuals and communities within society.

A key concept to emerge from the research was the notion of ‘homophily’: literally, ‘like me’.  It became clear that, amidst the manifold influences that act upon each individual agent within society, a very particular and significant role is played by a small number of individuals embedded within each and every social network.  Such individuals are held in high regard by others in their social network: they are ‘like me’, but ‘a little better’.  They are present in all social networks – church choirs, football clubs, political parties, academic institutions – and are not necessarily in positions of formal authority.  They are the people who ‘set the tone’, the people who – more or less consciously – adopt and reject new behaviours, and who thereby legitimise choices on the part of others in their network.

Such individuals are lynchpins in the process of forging social norms; and social norms are fundamental drivers of individual behaviour.  Understanding the nature of these individuals – their characteristics, their frequency within the population, their mode of operation – could, our research suggested, play an important role in understanding the formulation of social norms, which could in turn provide important insights into how social norms could be ‘steered’ in the direction of more sustainable lifestyles.  If we were to be concerned with radical transformation in time use, then this would certainly represent a dramatic shift in social norms; and the role of influential individuals in establishing such a norm could be crucial.

We devised a method for finding such individuals within any given social network; and we used the method to locate and interview twenty of them.  Amidst a range of distinctive behavioural traits – these individuals were gregarious, enthusiastic, sociable, characterised by self-belief and altruism - the tendency of these individuals to be attuned to the fabric of their social world was striking.  All the individuals we interviewed (and this chimed strongly with the findings of the literature) had a self-expectation of impact: irrespective of the social network, and the broad norms that characterised that network, each individual had a ‘track record’ of having invented things, initiated things and delivered things that had ‘made things better’ for those around them.  In considering new opportunities and new projects (that is, in contemplating new goals) these individuals carefully evaluated both the extent to which the new project would or would not deliver some benefit to other members of their social network as well as the extent to which their personal association with the new project would benefit them personally.  Potential projects that carried excessive risk, either to the (subjectively perceived) status of the influential individual or the (subjectively assessed) well-being of the social network in which they were embedded, were rejected.

The individuals we interviewed were not asked directly about time use, but our research and analysis provides some important pointers.  For example, the influential individuals we interviewed were highly attuned to the idea that any change with which they might be associated, and into which they might put effort, would have to have demonstrable positive benefits for the members of their community or network.  If such individuals were to interpret ‘reduced working week’ in terms – say – solely of reduced incomes for their fellows, then they could very easily resist the idea (and, as influential individuals, their rejection of change has considerable power).  Conversely, if they were persuaded that a radical reduction in working hours would deliver improved well-being for their fellows, then they could very easily become vital agents of change.

Additionally, given the individuals’ sensitivity to risk, it is possible that the conflict with prevailing corporate and governmental orthodoxy implied by radical changes in time use would represent an insuperable barrier.  Pushing back against this possibility, however, is another fascinating finding from the research: all the individuals interviewed had, on occasions, pursued projects that very clearly challenged existing authority: they are maverick individuals who tend not to be ‘scared’; and if they could be recruited to the cause of a radically reduced working week, they could be enormously important.

Do tasks really cluster?

In another study, also for Defra[14], Brook Lyndhurst investigated ‘catalyst behaviours’ – the idea that some (pro-environmental) behaviours might act as catalysts for wider behavioural changes.  The idea of catalytic behaviours relies on the existence of structural, causal relationships between different behaviours – that participating in a behaviour (such as recycling) might cause an individual to then take up other behaviours (such as introducing energy efficiency measures at home). If this relationship between actions could be shown to exist, there would be important implications for initiatives designed to increase participation in pro-environmental behaviours, since identifying the right ‘catalyst’ behaviours could result in a ‘multiplier effect’ or a ‘behavioural chain reaction’.

A key component of the research was the use of Multiple Sort Procedures, in which a sample of individuals was invited to organise behaviours into subjectively intelligible groupings.  Behaviours were set out individually on cards, and the research participants were invited to group the cards into piles of behaviours that were ‘like’ one another, and then to name the likeness.  Multi-dimensional scalogram analysis was then conducted on the groupings to look for patterns.

A very striking feature of the results was the disconnect between the kinds of linkages between behaviours assumed by policy makers and professionals, on the one hand, and ‘ordinary people’ on the other.  Behaviours that, from a policy or professional perspective, were clustered as ‘energy behaviours’ or ‘travel behaviours’ or ‘waste behaviours’ were clustered quite differently by research participants – into groups such as ‘things I do at home’ or ‘things I do with my partner’ or ‘things I do on Tuesday’.

This result strongly supports the arguments made earlier.  Tasks (behaviours) are clustered according to perspective, and are related to goals.  From the perspective of a large institution such as a government department or a multi-national energy company a group of tasks quite legitimately looks like ‘energy behaviours’; and, given a goal of the form ‘improve energy efficiency’ such a clustering makes sense.  From the perspective of an individual householder, however, goals are quite different and, as a result, behaviours/tasks are clustered in quite different ways.

From the perspective of this essay, the point here is to reinforce the argument that considering the problem of time use in terms of task clusters provides an important analytical device: task bundles are not in any way ‘fixed’ outside the system, and do indeed appear to cluster and sub-divide in the way described earlier.

Intriguingly, and in addition, the results also point to the limits to the kind of power described above.  Large-scale entities may well be able to specify the task cluster known as ‘energy efficiency behaviours’, and may well be able to marshal resources to endeavour to influence such behaviours; but the irascible learning agents known as humans are quite capable of ignoring all that and simply having categories called ‘things I do on Tuesday’.  Herein lies the kernel for optimism going forward.

Can citizens consume without consumerism?

In a study conducted for WRAP[15], Brook Lyndhurst investigated consumers’ use and understanding of date labels and storage guidance on food.  The purpose of the study was to provide evidence to government for use in decisions on whether and how to modify such guidance, in the hope that improvements in either labelling or guidance could contribute to reductions in food waste.  The study involved an array of research techniques, including in-depth interviews with householders, analysis of food diaries, a large-scale quantitative survey and ethnographic research.

In an attempt to explain observed variation in label- and guidance-related behaviours, we developed a preliminary segmentation model of UK consumers.  The segmentation modelling began with outline assumptions that label and storage guidance usage would be related to food consumption choices and/or food waste behaviours.  In the event, the most stable and distinctive modelling solutions were related, instead, to factors such as life experience, risk profiles and self-confidence.  Although there are certainly variations in label use and storage guidance with respect to different types of food (chicken versus cheese, for example), a much deeper set of factors best explained observed variation in practice.

This insight chimes with an emerging line of thought in the field of behaviour change, prompted in large part by the efforts of the researchers behind Common Cause[16].  The Common Cause argument is – in essence – that a common set of human ‘values’ can be activated or de-activated by the environment in which a human finds themselves, and that consumerism activates certain ‘extrinsic’ values at the expense of ‘intrinsic’ values.  Common Cause argues, further, that efforts to promote more environmentally (or socially, or ethically) positive behaviour in terms of extrinsic values merely reinforces those elements of human personality that are the cause of many unsustainable practices.

Though disputed and challenged in some quarters, the Common Cause insight – that we should look to the deeper drivers of behaviour when attempting to devise policy or other interventions – is supported by the Brook Lyndhurst research[17].  ‘Food’ behaviours cannot be explained simply in terms of attitudes towards food.

Though at one level trite, such an observation acts as a bulwark to the optimistic note sounded earlier.  Although, in some ways and for some purposes, it is possible to explain food consumption behaviour in terms of – for example – food prices, the relative elasticity of comparable food products, the availability of supermarkets, the relative status of different food items and so on; in other and important ways food consumption behaviour can be explained in terms of – for example – attitudes towards risk, the desire to care for others and the subjective sense of being able to ‘live a good life’.

In short, whilst ‘consumerism’ is certainly a powerful force in driving and shaping consumer behaviour, it is by no means the only force.  Other, deeper factors - including ‘values’ - are also in play.  Given the kind of survey results suggesting how important time use considerations are to British citizens, there is every reason to suppose that deeper ‘values’ lie behind these opinions; and that, in the right circumstances – that is, if system conditions were arranged appropriately – these values could come to the fore.

Overhauling the system - part two

What is it that we want?

The goals of individuals evolve over time, during both the course of their lifetime and over the course of the decades and centuries.  In the early twenty first century, in the developed economies – of which the UK remains an example – Maslow’s approach[18] continues to offer a sound mechanism for examining these goals.  If you are hungry and cold, then these are your priorities and it is hard to think of much else.  If your basic material needs are met, and if you’re feeling reasonably secure in your employment, and you have effective relationships with your friends and family, then perhaps you’ll be ready to start worrying about your self-esteem and whether or not you’re self-actualising.  Self-actualisation is not something that the starving and homeless tend to worry about too much.

The framework within which Maslow’s hierarchy operates consists, nevertheless, of the historically specific social and economic conditions in which that individual finds themselves.  It would have been hard to want a ready meal or a Big Mac in the 1950s, for example; or to believe that you would be held in higher regard by your peers by acquiring a new iPhone in the 1960s.

The transition from mere ‘consumption’ to ‘consumerism’ can be seen as the process by which the act of acquiring things begins to meet ‘needs’ at progressively higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  Humble food is, for the millions of middle-classes in Britain (and, despite the prevailing economic conditions, there remain millions of relatively well-off people in this country) not merely a means of meeting some Maslow-basic needs; it is, or can be, a means of bolstering self-esteem, of positioning oneself socially, conceivably even of self-actualisation.

With rising prosperity, therefore, of the kind we have seen over the past half century, our wants have evolved; and so, too, have the goods and services provided to enable us to meet those wants.  In fact, both sides of the equation have co-evolved: new goods and services enable us to have new wants; and the development of our wants drives the development of new goods and services.

The providers of those goods and services – in most cases, corporate enterprises – also have goals.  As with individuals, these goals too evolve over both individual and historic time.  The newly-fledged enterprise is generally intent merely on surviving into next year; whilst the global mega-corporation may be considering strategic investment decisions because expected returns in the Asian region seem set to outstrip those in Europe.

It is over historic time that things become most interesting because, deep down, corporations – and it is corporations that have emerged as the most successful mechanism for the production and distribution of goods and services – have a remarkably simple goal: make a return.  And apart from mild variations (short term profit versus medium term profit, capital gain versus revenue generation etc) caused by ownership structures and the particular legislative requirements in different operating environments, this goal remains intact over both time and space.

And this is where the deep tension is revealed between individuals and corporations.  Despite their manifest success as producers and consumers for capitalism, and despite the continuous entreaties to be a ‘hard working family’ and the bombardment of innumerable advertisements designed to ensure they remain competitive in their consumption[19], individual humans persist in wanting (according to the things they say in surveys) ‘time with friends and family’ and ‘health’ and ‘a good family life’.  Corporations – organised capital – are not so keen on these things.  (How can they make money from us if we are idly enjoying ourselves, going for a walk or whatever?)

If citizens begin seriously to resist these entreaties – if they, for example, began to demand a radical reduction in their average working week – then they would directly jeopardise the goals of organised capital; and it has no other goals.  It would have no choice but to resist; what else would it do?  And given the power of the multi-national corporations, their ability to resist is considerable.  A transition towards a radically reduced average working week, and a corresponding move away from contemporary consumerism towards genuinely sustainable lifestyles, would be presented as a move towards ‘poverty’, towards a lower position in the international league table, as undermining competitiveness, as a failure to innovate, as a way of stealing a positive future from our children, as a way of reducing our ability to invest, and so on and so on…  An animal is always at its most dangerous when cornered.


A more sustainable future is not merely a technical concept; it implies a fundamental re-alignment of goals.  Current goals, forged in the dynamics of power relations between citizens and organised capital, are biased firmly in favour of capital.  A radical reduction in the average working week represents a significant threat to the goals of organised capital, and it will resist, using all the power at its disposal, this kind of change.

There are, however, grounds for optimism.  Human goals are socially-determined, and whilst organised capital has a great deal of power, it is not omnipotent.  Many people continue to hold values that mean they ‘want’ non-material things from life, suggesting there is plenty of ‘latent demand’; and – as the research cited above makes clear – the social norms that legitimise time use are significantly shaped by a relatively small number of ‘influential individuals’.  Radical reductions in the average working week could, if legitimised by such individuals (who happen also to have rather less regard than the rest of us for established power) become more rapidly acceptable than might be supposed.

Furthermore, whilst time ‘at work’ is predominantly under the control of organised capital, citizens have demonstrated that, for some of their behaviours at least, they organise their tasks and time in ways that defy organised capital.  This suggests that there may be scope for more radical re-consideration of time use in work as well as non-work domains.

It also needs to be acknowledged that the phrase ‘organised capital’, whilst conceptually useful, does not do justice to the full range of institutional arrangements that exist for the purposes of producing and distributing goods and services.  Many forms – charities, social enterprises, public enterprises – are not so slavishly subject to the goal of ‘shareholder return’ and may, therefore, be more able to adapt to a world of radically lower average working weeks.  Not only that – they could conceivably, with the right kinds of leadership and incentives, be intimately involved in bringing it about.

And this, finally, points to a closing remark.  As a complex system, the modern economy no longer has ‘root causes’; there are no ‘starting points’.  Instead, everything affects, and is affected by, everything else.  The trick – as Donella Meadows made so clear – is to identify those leverage points that are most likely to bring about the desired transition in system conditions.

Leverage points are, in most cases, distributed throughout any given complex system; and so it is in the case of time use.  A transition to lower average working weeks, and to sustainable lifestyles more generally, is not something that can be achieved merely by ‘top down’ or ‘bottom-up’ actions; it will require, instead, actions to be distributed throughout the system - some actions by individuals, some action by small enterprises, some action by trade unions and representative bodies, some action by governments, even some action by larger enterprises.  It will be the latter that most sternly resist, because it is they that have the most to lose – but, if they are as good as they say they are, then they’ll find a way to adapt in order to give us what we want.  And if we want shorter working weeks, and sustainable lifestyles, we should say so.

[1] See, for example, “Life satisfaction and other measures of wellbeing in England, 2007-2011, from the Survey of Public Attitudes and Behaviour towards the Environment”, National Statistics/Defra, 2012.  See also, for further evidence reinforcing this list and a helpful summary of the ONS work on well-being indicators etc, Houses of Parliament POST Note #421, Sept 2012
[2]Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’, Donella Meadows, 1999
[3] See World Economics Association Newsletter 2(4), August 2012
[4] See, for example, ‘Evolution and Economics’, Geoffrey Hodgson, 1993
[5] See, for example, ‘Strategies of Commitment’, Thomas Schelling, 2006
[6] See, for example, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, E P Thompson, 1963
[7] ‘Shadow Work’, Ivan Illich, 1981
[8]  See, for example, ‘All Consuming’, Neal Lawson, 2009
[9] ‘What money can’t buy’, Michael Sandel, 2012
[10]The Challenge of Affluence’, Avner Offer, 2006
[12] Fell D., Austin A., Kivinen E., Wilkins C. (2009).The diffusion of environmental behaviours; the role of influential individuals in social networks. Report 1: Key findings - A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  Brook Lyndhurst. Defra, London.
[13] Fell D., Patel S. (2005). Nudging the S-Curve: Innovative methods for influencing behaviours & assessing success. A report to Defra. Brook Lyndhurst. Defra, London.
[14] Austin, A., Cox, J., Barnett, J. and Thomas, C. (2011). Exploring catalyst behaviours: A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Brook Lyndhurst for Defra, London.
[15] ‘Consumer insight: date labels and storage guidance’, (2011) Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP
[16]Common Cause: The case for working with our cultural values’, WWF et al, 2010
[17] Further and ongoing Brook Lyndhurst studies, including for the Fairtrade Foundation and a major private sector employer, have continued to support the notion that incorporating ‘values’-level variables into segmentation models provides a powerful basis for both classification and the targeting of interventions.
[18] ‘Motivation and personality’ Abraham Maslow, 1954
[19] See, for example, ‘The Joyless Economy’, Tibor Skitovsky, 1976 & 1992


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