The Paula Gordon Show
OverWorked & OverSpent

Juliet Schor

      . . . is an economist, writer and scholar. A senior lecturer at Harvard University, she is also Head Tutor in Women Studies there. In addition, Dr. Schor is professor of the economics of leisure at Tilburg University. She lives in Newton, MA, with her husband and two children who watch no television.

Excerpts3:15 secs

      Working more, spending more, enjoying it less? Is it The American Way or consumerism run amuck?

      Some people, including economist Juliet Schor, are beginning to question the underlying assumptions of what she calls a consumerist mentality. Once most Americans could meet basic biological needs, spending took on a heightened social meaning. Spending has become a social phenomenon, consumerism now builds on our fear of being marginalized in our social groups. That fear has costs. Schor's question: Is the high cost of all the stuff we're accumulating worth the escalating costs to our families, communities and the planet?

      While consumption and income have trended up in the past 25 years, quality of life indicators have trended down. Schor thinks this is no accident. She sees us eroding our daily lives by working too much so we can spend too much. We're undermining our social bonds and destroying the planet in pursuit of material goals which are leaving us empty. The proverbial "Joneses," with whom Americans have been trying to keep up for decades, have moved out of the neighborhood. They now reside in our slick magazines and live on television. Schor's research shows that a person spends (and does not save) $208 for every hour of television he or she watches. We keep "up-scaling" toward "Joneses" in the top of America's economic strata while the disparity between that them and the other 80% of us keeps growing. It's true. It's literally impossible to "keep up."

      A growing number of Americans have already walked away from "up-scaling." They've chosen to "down-shift" instead. They've changed their lifestyles to earn less money, work less and spend less -- the three tend to go together. The results can be both an appreciable improvement in one's sense of well-being and a more secure financial footing.

      Economist Schor sees today's global consumer economy resting on short-term thinking and built on the backs of exploited workers, worldwide. To correct today's imbalances is going to take all of us acting as consumers, workers, shareholders and citizens, requiring our economy, our governments and our companies to act more responsibly.

      Schor's a shopper herself, but says she has no taste for hair-shirts. Think. Question. Be conscious and conscientious when you do buy things. Seriously investigate the effects of "up-scaling" and the things in your life. Walking away from all that stuff the Joneses have accumulated may just give us back the things we value most -- time, family, community and a sense of well-being. The choice is ours.

Conversation 1

Juliet Schor tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how Americans have capitulated to a consumerist mentality. She addresses the social meaning of spending, now that most people can meet their biological needs. She ties being overspent and overworked to fear of social isolation, the marginalization associated with doing things differently. Fear is a recurring theme.

Conversation 2

Consumerism, according to Dr. Schor, is increasingly important in our lives. She describes the effects of people being redefined as consumers in every venue, from art to government. She links this transformation to what she sees as the increasing corporate domination of life. She describes being a dissident voice within her field of economics, concerned that we have too few counter-weights to ideas in the intellectual marketplace. Her example is the non-market parts of the economy, which underpins the market itself. Specifically, Schor's research shows that a person spends (and does not save) $208 for every hour a person watches television.

Conversation 3

Consumer tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world, according to Schor. She worries about the multiple impacts this has on lives, cultures and the environment. She reminds us that quality of life indicators have trended down for 25 years, at the same time consumption and income have trended up. She believes this growing disparity is rooted in people having traded consumer items for social connections, friendships and family, spiritual meaning and meaning itself. She fears we are destroying the planet, undermining our social bonds, eroding our daily life (free time, family and community time) pursuing material goals which leave us empty. A "shopper" herself, Schor urges us to think, question, be conscientious, and to seriously investigate the effects of "up scaling" and "stuff" in our lives.

Conversation 4

Schor tells stories of people who have voluntarily "down-shifted," changed their lifestyles to earn less money, work less and spend less. She suggests this can yield a higher quality of life while providing more financial security. Work-and-spend can yield to control over daily life. Schor offers ideas for breaking the "keeping up" spiral that surrounds our children. She suggests the consumerist life style and corporate agendae are wreaking havoc with peoples' commitment to family, the environment, and community. She calls for a conversation about living lives meshed with our values.

Conversation 5

Longer work hours and declining leisure have been a trend for about 25 years. Productivity falls as hours grow. Schor suggests ways to work shorter and be smarter about it. Down shifting, she suggests, reunites work and spending. It can also change how we relate to family, community and the larger environment. She calls our attention to the exploitation underlying today's global consumer economy. Schor and Bill Russell talk about how prices might reflect true costs, both material and social. She calls for a revitalized consumer movement to force corporations to act more responsibly.

Conversation 6

Individuals need to get their financial houses in order, Schor believes. She urges that when we do spend, we do it consciously and conscientiously. She suggests corporate as well as individual interests are in the long run, not the quick buck. She urges changes to our financial structure that would force companies and our whole system to be more responsible and accountable, rather than today's assumption that whatever is good for the bottom line is OK.


It was a pleasure working with Basic Books' publicity group in arranging for this program.

We thank The Commerce Club for their ongoing support and hospitality.

The Overspent American is published by Basic Books, a Member of Perseus Books, L.L.C.

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