Add this to the ever-growing list of incredibly bad ideas. The article proposes a way of life called “the medium chill.” Medium chill is a lifestyle in which once you decide that you’ll never win the rat race, never get all the best stuff or even more than your neighbors, then there is no point in working hard, and instead you should just coast. But don’t take my word for it:
If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do….
But … meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.
So why do it? There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice.
TL;DR–the author declares that he feels he is working too hard, and doesn’t want to work harder. He rationalizes this with a protracted attack on consumer culture because consumerism always leaves everyone wanting more. He cites a number of the pop social science books and “life coaches” to support this thesis that less is more, but he extends their advice to include working less. His whole these is that people work more to get all the things they want, and if we didn’t want all these things, then we should work less.
I’m all for downsizing, simplifying, minimizing and reducing one’s material imprint on the world. I’m all for consuming less. I think advertising is a pernicious, invasive, and damaging psychological force. If you want to be the flag bearer in the march against consumerism, I’ll be right there behind you, firing the plasma cannon into Spencer Gifts and The Sharper Image.
“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.” Epictetus said that 2000 years ago, when frankly there weren’t all that many things around.
But the author of this article isn’t really rejecting consumer culture. He says quite clearly that he likes reading and watching TV. But aren’t those forms of consumption? They aren’t material consumption, true, but so what? More crappy furniture clutters up your house, but crappy books and movies clutter up your mind. In my opinion, that’s worse. And take note: he isn’t “laying around” thinking, writing, doing or creating. He actually explicitly rejects writing more in the excerpt I quoted above. What he is in fact advocating is consuming more. Consuming more media. He somehow wants to reject working long hours and to pursue more TV watching. All in the name of being less of a consumer, which is ironic, given that TV is the primary means by which consumer culture is conveyed and promoted.
He is actually arguing for being more of the kind of consumer he already is. Which is fine. People generally try to rationalize inertia and the status quo, because (surprise!) changing your life is a lot of work. But as an individual, he is free to choose to live he life as is best for him (and he’s free to change it later).
But then he says things like this:
The U.S. is slowly dividing into two nations, one that can’t get what it needs and one that has everything and always wants more.
Then maybe those in the group that can’t get what it needs and who “just don’t want to work that hard” should instead “try to make more money.” That’s just me.
But now consider the politics of “the medium chill.” Do you think this author supports universal healthcare? Does he support expanding Social Security? Raising taxes on the top 5%? If so, doesn’t that amount to demanding that society enable his lifestyle choice at the expense of those who make a different choice?
This is the flaw in the argument. You want to work less because you don’t want all that superfluous stuff. But what about the stuff you need? Who pays for that? I’m not saying that “medium chill” is merely hidden socialism. At least socialism advertised itself as “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.” This guy clearly says he has the ability to do more, but he chooses not to. So this is a philosophy that even a socialist would consider freeloading.
But it doesn’t matter, because he isn’t following this idea through all of its logical conclusions. He makes it clear that he is thinking about maximizing his happiness and he’s concluded that he can do that by working less and consuming less. Undoubtedly, this happiness maximization strategy includes supporting political ideas in which the government or some other external entity provide for him those things that his “medium chill” work ethic can no longer afford. And that in turn means that the people who make the opposite choice from him–the people who choose to stay on the treadmill, who choose to work longer hours for the money–will have to pay for, albeit indirectly through some institutional intermediary.
And that is what this article is really about.
That’s how you get people in the U.S. making $200,000 a year — unquestionably rich relative to the median — whining that they’re just humble middle class. They look with bitter envy on those making a million, just as those making a million aspire to the tens of millions, and so on. That’s how you get a media and political class at once privileged and put-upon, swimming in wealth relative to the average American but forever rubbing shoulders with those who are even richer. [Emphasis mine.]
This is an article by a guy who can’t stop looking at other people, can’t stop wanting to keep up with the Joneses, but also knows he can’t compete with them. This guy is bought into one of the biggest lies of the consumer society, that it can all be yours and you don’t have to work hard. And only upon discovering the truth, that in fact you do have to work exceedingly hard just to climb a rung or two, he wants out. That realization fosters a resentment, a kind of class envy, which fuels the fantasy of a complete moral and ethical readjustment of society in which the people “making $200,000 a year — unquestionably rich relative to the median — whining that they’re just humble middle class” end up supporting his leisure time by providing him with everything he needs but chooses not to work for. It’s an angry, bitter man’s fantasy. That’s why his medium chill article only discusses wants and not needs. The needs will be obtained from the bitterly envious, the shoulder-rubbers and the privileged, to use his words.
No true rejection of consumer culture argues for working less, because work and consumerism are not tied together. In fact, the consumer society is marked by the transformation of leisure–hobbies, sports, community activity, etc–into the consumption of media and particularly television, and by the representation of work as fun, social, exciting, and interesting, but never hard.
And I remind you again, it’s the author of the “medium chill” lifestyle who wants to spend more time watching TV.
Where this author goes wrong is conflating the American work ethic with consumer culture. The American work ethic is how we got to the moon. Consumerism is the reason we won’t go back. He argues from the assumption that the only reason we work harder and longer is to get more stuff or get fancier stuff, because if he doesn’t assume this, then everything is all on him. He rationalizes his desire to work less by claiming he doesn’t want the stuff that he assumes people who work a lot are working for. But what about the stuff he needs?
Perhaps people work hard because they find happiness in achieving things that are difficult. Perhaps they work hard because they feel that it ensures that they will keep working when those around them who work less may be laid off. Perhaps they think their work matters. Perhaps they work hard to accumulate for a better future for their children, or to insure against an unexpectedly unemployed future. Perhaps they work hard now so they won’t have to work hard, or at all, much later. Perhaps a million other things. That this guy can only see one reason to work harder–for greater consumption–is a reflection of his “judgments about things”, not those of society.
These are hard times. But the way forward individually and collectively is not medium chill, it’s maximum effort.