Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A man in debt is so far a slave.” Money has no intrinsic value yet we spend our days damaging our health and spirit in order to obtain it. Why do we sacrifice our well-being for it? Is it the cliché that “we just want to provide a better life for our kids than we had?” Is it just way of the civilized world? The most important question to ask, however, is what power do we have to change this way of thinking and living? The reality is simple: money is a vehicle for social control. Debt makes us good, obedient workers and citizens.
The traditional workweek started in 1908 at The New England Cotton Mill in order to allow followers of the Jewish religion to adhere to Sabbath. With the passage of The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, the 40-hour workweek became the norm. Data from the 2013 American Community Survey showed that the average commute time in America is about 26 minutes each way. According to a Gallup poll, the average workweek in America is 34.4 hours, however, when only taking into account full time workers, that average shoots up to 47, or 9.4 hours per day during a 5-day workweek. Keeping averages in mind then, between commuting, working and figuring in an hour for lunch (usually less), that puts us at approximately 11 hours and 40 minutes for the average full time worker. If you have a family with young kids, just add in another few hours for homework, baths, etc.
When the day is done, how much time do you have for yourself? To exercise, meditate or otherwise unwind the way that all the healthy living gurus preach? And how much of yourself, your presence of mind, is left to devote to family? We give the company the heat of our most intense mental fire while our families get the smoke. Yet Jeb Bush, the 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, says we need to work more.
The answer to why we put ourselves through this daily grind is multifaceted. The most pervasive reason is workplace and societal pressures. We are raised in a matrix of sorts. The cycle starts around the age of five when we are expected to adhere to aregimented 8-hour day of school. At this age, we don’t have the intellect to question why, so we mechanistically follow the path that’s laid out. This daily path becomes engraved in our minds and becomes as automatic as the sun’s daily journey. Our school system is adept at churning out working class individuals en masse. We are taught along the way not to question authority, again adhering to the working class mentality.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those in power. They are the ones that like to color outside the lines. Many books abound with titles such as The Wisdom of Psychopaths that illustrate how people with psychopathic traits, ones who don’t tend to follow rules, are often found in managerial roles such as CEOs all the way up to presidents of countries. With these rare manipulative, coldhearted personalities in place and the rest of us following like good sheeple without questioning, the stage is set for compliance.
If you have been in the working world long enough, then the following statement should ring true: if you work extra hours, you are a great worker; if you decline, you’re useless and apathetic. In the work world, there’s typically no in between. The pressure to succeed for the pride and benefit of the company unfortunately supersedes that of the pressure to be a good parent, sibling, son or daughter. According to a study done by the economic policy institute, between 1948 and 2013, productivity has grown 240% while income for non-managerial workers has grown by 108%. To make up for this discordance, pride of doing what’s best for the company has been employed as a motivational tactic. This tactic has been used as a sharp IV needle that’s been inserted into our veins and we have willingly ingested the contents that are injected through it. Pressure to conform toward achieving the company’s goals has overcome our will to be compensated accordingly.
The other side of this pressure comes from society as a whole outside the education/workplace. A close friend of mine works for a state court and makes about $40K/year. He is also a self-employed business owner on the off hours. I estimate that he works about 70-80 hours a week. He owns a home in a well-to do neighborhood and he drives a seventy thousand dollar luxury car. This crystallizes the saying ‘big hat, no cattle.’ But when a lie is told over and over, the lie becomes the truth.
When we look at someone who drives a luxury car and lives in an upscale part of town, we see this as success because of how often that visual of it has been pounded tirelessly into our minds. We fail to see that these are nothing but symbols of success and false ones at that. They appear real because as a society, we have been conditioned to see them this way by the advertising industry. In the book, The Millionaire Next Door, the authors annihilate this illusion. Numbers don’t lie and the statistics show that most true millionaires, those with a net worth of over one million dollars, do not own those luxuries that we typically associate with success and wealth. They view them as the reality of what they are: a depreciating liability. According to the book, the typical millionaire owns a home in the two to three hundred thousand dollar-range and a non-luxury automobile. If something goes wrong with either, they have the cash reserves to fix it. On the other hand, the commonplace owner of the luxury home and car can’t afford the roof and the tires respectively without going deeper into debt if they should need replacing.
Ownership of these symbols of wealth becomes a self-perpetuating illusion to satisfy the psychological need for acceptance. Unfortunately, human behavior dictates that emotional needs often override logical thinking. It’s been said that the borrower is slave to the debt-owner and with luxury items, debt is the rule, not the exception. Debt is healthy for those in power and contributes to a needy and thus obligated worker.
The current wisdom of slave, spend and save for retirement has only one destiny. That destiny can be summed up in three sentences. Spend your healthiest and most productive years working to support a life of materials and thus illusions of success while elevated stress damage your health. During this time, be sure to save enough money for retirement so you can enjoy those years of the subsequent poor health. And lastly, do it in the name of pride for your company and country.
I take pride in being American, as I’m sure most Americans do, however, if you’re reading this you’re likely smart enough to see the holes in the daily grind. It saps our creative potential and our physical, as well as our spiritual energy. We don’t need any studies to tell us how stressed we are and subsequently, how unhealthy we are. The physical manifestations of stress such asobesity, hypertension, heart disease, increased risk of cancer, depression, anxiety and many others tell us all we need to know. They tell us that we need a better work/life balance. They tell us that the pendulum has swung too much in the direction of work and away from life. Fortunately, there’s a way that we can take it back.
The most important way to restore this balance is to realize the power that we, as consumers, hold. Tyler Durden, the protagonist in the film, Fight Club said it best…
“…advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
The marketing and advertising industry know, more than anyone else, what motivates the human mind and how to tap into those instinctual drives. To defend against this industries seductiveness, we need to journey within ourselves and bring to light what’s really important to us. What most of us will find is that experiences and time well spent, not materials, are what makes us happy. In the book, aptly titled Well Being, the authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter discuss how experiences have been proven to make us happier than material posessions.
We revel in the anticipation of the experience, we enjoy the experience itself and we look back on it fondly for as long as we live. We do this while the expensive car or house that we borrowed money long ago to obtain falls apart causing us to borrow more money. If we live according to the rule that everything we purchase, with the exception of a home, is acquired by cash, then we fail to become slaves to debt and by extension, work. We no longer relinquish our power to creditors.
Oscar Wilde was famously quoted as saying that anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination. Materialistically speaking, living by this notion will bind us with shackles to a life of debt servitude. When we rip those shackles of debt from our wrists, our minds become clear and we see what truly makes us happy. We spend more time with friends and family. We focus on our passions and hobbies. In essence, we get back to the foundation of what it means to be human. After all, none of us will ever arrive upon the mountain of our last moments of existence wishing we spent more time at the office. We will instead arrive wishing we completed that book, that painting or that experience with those we love most. For those can be purchased not with debt, but with time. And there is no more cunning, covert and deceitful thief of time as that villain we call debt.