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Much of our lives are spent in the role of producer or consumer. But what do we know about the relationship between these two states: how, working through us and the society we inhabit, they influence each other. Might it be that being more thoughtful about this relationship has a role to play in living fuller lives in a more humane world.

A number of thinkers have explored dimensions of what Daniel Bell famously called ‘the cultural contradiction of capitalism’. Bell argued that capitalist production required a set of characteristics in stark contrast to those normalised by modern consumerism or, as he neatly put it, capitalism requires us to be ‘puritans by day and playboys by night’.

From this perspective, the virtues necessary for good work and successful enterprise include task mastery, self-restraint, deferred gratification, discipline, attention, and collaboration. The virtues normalised by hyper consumerism include self-indulgence, short term gratification, superficiality, shallow individualism and an obsession with choice. Or to look at it another way: work is a domain of oppression, ruthless competition and faceless bureaucracy while consumerism offers personal control, freedom and pleasure.

The point is that for most of us these are very different domains in which to operate and express ourselves. Rather than a simple elevation of production above consumption as a zone of human growth and fulfilment, should we focus on the relation between the two? Perhaps the biggest impact on our quality of life and ambition for ourselves lies not in the mores of either domain but the dis-integrating effect of co-existing in both.

Think first about the way the imperatives and allures of consumption affect how we think about paid work. Obviously, a love of spending money can lead to an instrumental attitude to labour, neatly summed up in the brand name TGI Friday. But might it also be that the expectations of choice, sovereignty and personalisation inculcated by higher end consumerism feed a dissatisfaction with discipline and regimentation at work. Surveys find that the quality most associated with feelings of well-being among workers are autonomy and self-expression.

Conversely, might doing dull, meaningless, ethically dubious work (for example, David Graeber’s famous ‘bullshit jobs’) feed a hunger for certain forms of consumer gratification (from getting smashed on Friday night to splashing out on a luxury holiday)? While on the upside, do people whose work gives them greater scope for personal expression and craft then prize those same virtues reflected in the provenance of the things they buy?

Of course, in our shamefully unequal country, good and bad things tend to go together. People with the worst jobs get the worst pay and are prey to the lowest quality forms of consumer offer.

Nevertheless in exploring strategies to enable people to pursue fuller lives would it be more effective to encourage them to be ambitious at work (hard to do but likely to make a difference) or in the market place (less life changing but a lot easier)?

The richness of exploring both together lies in the fact that as a whole we are our own employees and our own consumers. How we might like to be seen and treated as a shop assistant (as a unique human being) will be in sympathy with how we might like a shop assistant to see us (as a unique human being). Through a long standing interest in the quality of work I have discussed the responsibilities of managers, bosses, Governments, shareholders and employee organisation but rarely customers.

The case for acknowledging and exploring the relationship between the worlds of production and consumption is made more urgent by shifts in commerce. There are two contrasting stories here. I have heard John Kay talk – in the context of economics and sustainability - about the need for growth based quality rather than the quantity of consumption. The classic example here is men’s hairdressing: think of the shift from blokes paying a few quid to have their hair roughly shaved by a barber in a white coat to modern men blowing thirty pounds on a quality ‘stylist’.

Let’s assume stylists get more job satisfaction than barbers (indeed surveys regularly find hairdressers to be the most job satisfied occupational group in Britain) and that men prefer having their scalps gently massaged, being offered a tea and choosing a hairstyle over a mandatory short back and sides and ‘something for the weekend sir?’. If so both they and the economy benefit with minimal adverse impact on the environment resulting from the greater consumption.

The other story can be told about Amazon. By brilliantly driving down costs and squeezing suppliers, Amazon shifts value from producer to consumer while making a massive profit on the transfer. One concrete example of what this means is offered in this piece by Franklin Foer. The impact of Amazon on the margins of publishers means that fewer and fewer can now afford to pay authors advances, thus the overall quality of authorship may decline. Or to take another example, in the absence of up front contracts for emerging talent, becoming a successful pop musician now rests as much on multimedia and marketing abilities (skills which used to be performed by other workers) as your musical ability.

The picture may be complex and mixed but overall, our country exhibits low inflation, low productivity and stagnant living standards. Thinking about how to improve wages, economists emphasise the quantity of demand, but exploring production and consumption together encourages us also to think about quality of demand, emphasising those elements of quality which are about the human input. It is interesting that my supermarket is keen to tell me that my milk comes from happy cows and my eggs from happy chickens but is less forthcoming about the psychological well-being of its suppliers and employees.

I’m not sure where all this takes us but having emphasised the quality of work in my account of how we grow what the RSA calls ‘the Power to Create’, I think it might be time to say something about the quality of shopping.

 

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