In today’s divided and volatile world, we need an outside-the-box upending of values in order to find happiness. One hundred years after the Bauhaus, the “Less is more” economy explores the possibility of a more abundant and fulfilling life than that offered by aggressive economic growth by leveraging our own abilities and resilience. Goodbye efficiency, hello design and aesthetics.
Are We Talking About “Less” Jobs?
Before we start introducing inspiring stories of people/organizations that leverage “less” in the next chapter, we need to address one last daunting question: will producing and consuming “less” shrink economy and result in massive job losses? The issue of jobs is huge – indeed it’s one of the biggest reasons why we support economic growth. We believe that it’s the economy that creates jobs. No economic growth, no jobs. But is it true? What does it really mean when we say “economy creates jobs?” What is “job” anyway?
Fundamentally, an economy emerges when there is certain amount of excess production available for exchange/trade, in addition to what’s needed for survival. A job – specific work performed for agreed rewards – supports, and is supported by, such excess production. The size of an economy and the number of jobs it upholds is determined by how much excess production it generates.
When the excess production was small, economic surplus was also small. About 99% of the history of our civilization, low level of economic excess had be spread among people so thinly that it created only limited number/variety of very poorly-rewarding, even exploiting jobs such as peasant or craftsman. Not only were people made to work themselves from fingers to the bone, unless you were part of the privileged class that monopolized the roles of managing and distributing wealth, they had little freedom to pursue their own ambition because jobs often had to be handed down within a family. “Upward mobility” was almost inconceivable. Those were the eras of “less” jobs, both in terms of quantity and quality.
But modern economy, or rather modern technology, changed the entire landscape of work from “exploited endlessly” to something bigger and better. The acts of production became much less onerous yet the yield jumped up, now that people acquired access to external power sources that were far more effective than manpower. The economy grow exponentially, opening up new opportunities for emerging working and middle-class. Many people were freed from painstaking tasks of production such as tilling soils or cutting down timber, and flocked to urban (industrial/commercial) regions in order to test their interpersonal, intellectual, creative, management…a variety of human skills that were suddenly sought in a technology-driven world. This was a big leap forward, because for the first time in history, people acquired substantial freedom to leverage their abilities to seek dream jobs and self-achievement. The era of “more” jobs finally arrived.
Today, after 200 years of aggressive pursuit for “more” production, jobs in industrialized regions are mostly non-labor, service-oriented, well-compensated and self-achieving compared to the era of “less” jobs. The doors of opportunities that were non-existent before are now available, and the ones that used to be closed and denied to many people are now wide open, as long as you work hard. It is clear that the more surplus the economy creates, the more, better jobs we get both in quantity and quality.
However, there is a caveat to this conclusion. Today, abundant job opportunities achieved by the aggressive economy are becoming not so open again, as if we are going back to the “less” jobs era, despite the sheer number of openings. Or rather, it’s happening exactly because of the sheer openness of the job market.
As we reviewed in Chapter 2 and 3, the driver behind the mesmerizing growth and rapid globalization has been efficiency. It has been doing a thorough job in identifying the most effective resources all over the world, and we, as human resources, didn’t get an immunity from the ruthless selection process. By applying a variety of efficiency standards such as education, test scores, credits or credentials, efficiency now scrutinizes, compares and ranks every one of us at a global scale. While we have access to unprecedented number of quality jobs, we also face unprecedented level of competition to secure one. For example, Google, one of the most popular workplace for job seekers, is said to receive about 3 million applications annually. That is more people than the population of Lithuania! And only about 7,000 of them are accepted, making your chance to become a Google employee 400 to 1.
Even if you are talking about (hopefully) less competitive jobs, you easily come across dispiriting information such as “on average 250 resumes are received for each corporate job opening”, “you are facing stiff competition because 427,000 other resumes are posted on Monster alone each and every week”, or “only 13% of job applicants were given a job interview…your chances of landing the average job you apply for is at less than 2%.”
As job market became as transparent and open as it could be, talented people around the globe started to target for the same great, dream jobs, making the qualification process an increasingly deadly competition. And as you instinctively know, once it gains momentum, competition can escalate easily. Today, it is not surprising that a 15 year-old student spends 15 hours /week working on homework. If you want to be a “winner” in this highly competitive world, you have to work, work and work even before you are a teen. “More” economic growth means “more” competition. That’s daunting, because any competition requires losers. It won’t be surprising that children today live under enormous pressure and feel anxiety.
Competition is not fun. If “more” jobs mean “more” competition, it’s bringing very conditional happiness. That is where the “less is more” design comes into play, in order to decouple “more” jobs from “more” competition, and bring back the fundamental purpose and value of what job is all about.
Then what is a job anyway? As we discussed earlier, an economy is a platform to exchange things or services that have values. So theoretically, if you owned certain values, and if there were people who want them, you should be able to exchange what you have with the reward you seek, whether or not such an exchange was in a form of a conventional job. But unfortunately, in today’s efficiency-first economy, exchanges are typically completed as business transactions, because the primary concern of the system is to make them as efficient as possible. In face of the overwhelming economy of scale, most people can only indirectly exchange their capacities through their employers, and get paid based on an efficiency-based compensation scheme.
But what if we could re-imagine value exchanges beyond conventional job, which is basically employment, so that we could actually own the process and design what we offer and what we get in exchange? What if we could leverage such exchanges to live happily, without stressing out too much about competition? And as far as those exchanges involve values, wouldn’t they still be job or economic transaction equivalent, because they satisfy the economic principles? That’s what the “less is more” jobs would be all about.
Job as direct and vibrant value exchange
Goodgym: Human energy – the largest neglected power source
Let’s take a look at GoodGym, a London-based not-for-profit organization that was founded out of a frustration that normal gyms were “waste of energy and human potential,” while there were “many neglected tasks and people in our communities that need that energy.” In modern society, jobs are highly specialized that typical urban work does not involve any physical activities. After sitting in an office chair for 8 hours, young people feel urge to burn excess energy, so they pay to go to a gym to squander their power on a treadmill. Or if they choose not to exercise, the energy will simply be stored in their body and accumulate as fat. At the same time, in other side of the society, there are people who desperately need it. They are often old people who live alone, almost completely isolated and struggling to access energy to do simple daily chores such as grocery shopping. But the current efficiency-first economy is not interested in connecting the two for exchanges, because doing so could be inefficient and not profitable. As far as human energy is concerned, supply is easily wasted while many demands are left unmet.
So Ivo Gormley, founder of Goodgym, decided to do just that. As a former non-gym goer who used to store his energy in his body, he started to deliver newspaper, twice a week, to an old individual living alone as part of his jogging routine. He quickly realized that the implications were profound: he felt determined to keep running because of the self-imposed assignment. And the old person suddenly found a “friend” whom he looked forward to seeing twice a week. By transferring useful energy to the old person, Ivo found the sense of accomplishment and healthier body, and the old person was reconnected to the community after long period of isolation. Both found something much bigger.
This inspired him to make it a larger movement, and Goodgym was born. Since its foundation in 2009, the organization is focused on directly exchanging humans’ energy between those who have extra and those who are in need. Throughout the UK, Goodgym organizes groups of runners, who routinely visit isolated old people (called “coach” because they motivate runners) as part of the road work. They deliver newspapers, do small chores and “befriend” with elderlies who often spend the whole week without talking to anyone, or are too frail to go for grocery shopping. Other athletes beatify parks, pick waste in the community as part of their training.
You may think it is a new form of volunteering, but there is a fundamental difference. Volunteering is more like a conventional employment: you need to agree with the organization about the service/time your provide (job description equivalent), and then sign many papers that specify your responsibilities (contract). You fit yourself into the requirements of an organization, and dedicate extra time/energy for them. But with Goodgym, you are directly transferring your energy generated from exercise with those in need. Energy provider (runner) and its recipients (old people) are in direct contact, so there is no dissipation of passion or the amount of energy.
The Goodgym model has profound implications as to how we could possibly exchange values in today’s highly segmented economy in a way it maximizes happiness. The runners would go to work and run even without the program. But when they added small tweaks to their running routine to visit old people their exercise was elevated to something bigger. The economy did not lose anything, but runners found sense of achievement. At the same time, old people got some jobs done, which clearly have economic value, and found priceless friends in addition to that.
Some people may argue that such programs will hurt sports gym industry and associated jobs. But if organizations like Goodgym start hiring staff (which it does), and brings in new types of sponsorship or partnership opportunities (which it has with New Balance), it may just be shifting where economic transactions occur, from efficiency-centric places to happiness-centric places with many co-benefits. As a matter of fact, conventional sports gyms could always come up with novel ideas on how to leverage energy the members waste on machines.
Whenever there is people’s energy and passion, we could design new ways to exchange them to bring in big happiness.
Patagonia: Value Exchanges in Product Use Phase
Whenever there is people’s fundamental skills and passion, new (or very old) job opportunities can also be created.
In previous chapter, we reviewed how Patagonia’s products increase their values as they are used by passionate and engaged customers. As they go on many memorable outdoor adventures wearing Patagonia gear, it becomes customers’ priceless buddy. Naturally, they want to fix it when it’s worn and torn. So Patagonia opened a repair center in Reno, Nevada, which is the country’s largest outdoor gear-repair shop that employs 69 skilled repairers who fix more than 50,000 items per year. In this era of mass production where it’s cheaper to by new one than fixing something, Patagonia newly created dozens of jobs that leverage fundamental human skills that were believed to be dead decades ago as a revenue-generating resource.
As a company committed to environmental protection, Patagonia encourages customers to reuse/repair/recycle, and the Reno repair center is one of their comprehensive strategy to reverse the trend of wasteful mass-production.
But the real momentum that’s making the economic transfer of repair skills to those who are in need of them in Patagonia project is customers’ commitment for their own experiences and process for self-achievement, for which Patagonia products are indispensable. Such passion helps the gear accumulate value as they become used, and create opportunities for good quality maintenance. It is astonishing that repairers typically use about 90 minutes to fix one item. It is a devoted care, which could come with a good price. But users still want to repair because their love for the clothes outweigh costs. More impressive, they patiently wait for 6-8 weeks until the clothes is back, because the program is in high demand!
This clearly demonstrates that there are values that are bigger than “cheaper, the better” kind of belief. If there are people who see values in their worn clothes, and when there are people who have skills to fix them, economic exchanges are totally possible and jobs can be created. Business theory would deny it because it’s inefficient, but what if you could embrace other values in such exchanges in a way people wanted to be involved?
“I didn’t want to have a job just to have a job”, one of the repairers at Reno facility says in the above video. “I wanted to make a difference. I think everyone that works here feels that way.” And they receive thank you letters from users who live in and venture out to all kinds of places: “Thank you for fixing my clothes so perfectly. I was heartbroken when I accidentally set fire on my jacket I’d been wearing so many years…what you did to me means a lot.”
Just as we saw with the example of Goodgym, people become connected and exchange through the act of repair, finding something much bigger than “having a job just to have a job.”
iFixit: Power of Tinkering
As part of their extensive repair project, Patagonia also works with iFixit, a wiki-based online resource that shares repair manuals submitted by users for just about everything. Among many for electronic gadgets, iFixit also compiles “how to fix” instruction for Patagonia gear.
As its name suggests – no one else but “I” fix it – iFixit is passionate about encouraging people to use their own power to repair what they have: “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it. You should have the right to use it, modify it, and repair it wherever, whenever, and however you want. Defend your right to fix.” Fixing something is not simply cost-saving actions you want to try when you can’t afford to buy a new one. iFixit tries to remind us that it is our hidden/hibernating potential we forgot we had, because the current economy dismissed it as “inefficient.” But being inefficient doesn’t mean no value for us, as we have been reviewing. On the contrary, the beauty we appreciate is often found in things that are labelled inefficient.
As people start tinkering how they can fix their own belongings, they quickly realize how much abilities they have. One stay-home-mom in New York, whose child accidentally flushed her iPhone into the plumbing, searched information on iFixit to see if she could make it work again. When she found the answer, it dawned to her that it was something she wanted to do: micro-soldering to repair electronic gadgets. She decided to become an expert of micro-soldering and started a company to bringing back life to the phones that were pronounced dead by other professionals. “There is of course the personal satisfaction in taking something that is a paperweight and returning it to life again,” the mom said. “That always is a drug-like, positive experience.”
When you find your unexplored ability and if you can find a way to exchange it for rewards you would like, it can be your job or job equivalent.
There is even more transcendental aspect in repair. A Japanese traditional repair technique called “kintsugi” is drawing global attention recently, and making a surprise comeback after being forgotten for decades. Typically applied to broken ceramics, “kintsugi” technique glues fragmented ceramic pieces together using the tree sap of Japanese urushi (a kind of poison oak), and coats the cracks with fine gold or silver powder, which gives fine, almost mystical finishing touches. If you ask efficiency-first economy, this is the most inefficient process ever. It’s very time consuming because each steps require tremendous focus and care. As a result, it could easily cost a lot more than buying new ones. But still, it that does not stop people from getting obsessed with its beauty. Some people even talk about its healing power. Not only acclaimed “kintsugi” porcelains sell high and kintsugi artists are high in demand, people are seeking to fix their own broken ceramics. Naturally, the “kintsugi” kit is available on Etsy.
Maybe skills to repair is something very close/intimate to us, because we all love to see things that cure, recover and heal. It may be in our gene as humans kept fighting for survival. Just remembering such power can provide us many unique way to create new types of value exchanges and job opportunities.
Etsy: Connecting Creators and Buyers Directly
If you talk about our own abilities and skills, you cannot ignore our power to create. It’s one of the most self-achieving, fulfilling activities we engage in. But as was the case with repair skills, it’s mostly been considered inefficient because we can only make so many per limited time.
But technology is changing the landscape by connecting sellers and buyers directly. If you want to find something more unique, you can always go to Etsy, the global marketplace for unique and creative goods so that you can find all kids of interesting products people created by re-imagining repair and/or recycle. Etsy has more than 2 million active sellers and 37.1 million buyers, who are excited about the platform that hails to “keep commerce human,” not commoditized for the sake of efficiency.
It is undeniable that technology is opening up new ways to leverage our own power in an economically viable way. Whereas conventional economy required us to be a “worker” in a large undertaking for the sake of the economy of scale, it’s becoming increasingly possible for people to deliver their abilities directly to those who value them. We may no longer have to be bound to rigid three-layer relationship of “new production – workers who support it – consumer” in the name of economic growth and job security. We can start pursuing flexible and simple value exchanges, as an individual or as a community, whenever there is supply and demand.
Many operations that share the spirit of “less is more” leverage technology that directly connects people, overcoming physical distances. Even though new endeavors are still emerging, the business environment is becoming increasingly friendly in order for us to upend “inefficient” values to opportunities for collective self-actualization.