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The Real New Economy
A New Way of Working for Optimal Life and Health Today

By Mark Lundegren © 2011

History will decide if people today are living in a new age, in the transformation to one, or in a new human epoch that began before our time.

Given our many new technologies and rapidly globalizing society, it certainly seems that the world is being re-made around us. We can see this widely-held view in the beliefs and expectations of people we know, in the new ways we now might or already do spend our time, and in the media we regularly produce and consume.

The popular writer Kurzweil, for example, has proposed that we are on the verge of an entirely new state of human existence, where our technological and biological evolution increasingly converges. As part of this convergence, Kurzweil has predicted the rise of autonomous robotic life and famously offers a decade-by-decade account of how this genesis of a more adaptive, resilient, and perhaps even dominating form of life might soon come about, remaking our human milieu. His ideas were taken up in a recent film by Spielberg – in a project originally to be led by Kubrick – exploring the potential for artificial life and nurturing new appreciation of the startling states of technological development we may be nearing.

In contrast, the educators Draves and Coates make a more modest but still intriguing proposal about our rapidly changing and seemingly uncertain times. They look to recent history and suggest that we are in the midst of a relatively compact and disruptive social revolution based computer technology, one that will last roughly twenty years and have many parallels with the earlier upending of life that came with the advent of the mechanical engine. Notably, their forecasts suggest important reversals of many features of twentieth century life that had their origins in this earlier period of rapid technologically-based social change.

And then there are new futurists like Watson, who follow in the fascinating and now well-traveled path of Toffler, musing on the convergence of current global trends and suggesting that a remarkable new time of both useful and frightening technologies and social norms is at hand. The critical lessons of this specific body of work are two. First, that life and the world as we know it may be trending in ways we can barely imagine, but that will soon oblige a response from us. Second, work in this area suggests that our ongoing imperceptions about the future point to important limits on our natural human ability to appreciate and respond to rapid change – limits we will need to breech in one manner or another before long, as the pace of change inexorably increases.

These selected works are of course just a small sampling of many available examples of “new age” predictions in our time, some far more fanciful than the ones I have cited and far less alloyed with obvious present-day developments than is perhaps astute. In total, this wide-ranging and growing area of creative work reflects the many tangible changes in the world we can clearly see already, along with our desire and struggle to collect them into larger patterns of cause, consequence, and meaning.

Though the direction of the technological and societal changes underway around us is complex and impossible to forecast precisely, these writers sensitize us to both our need and our ability to grapple with important and plainly developing trends in our time, assessing their significance and implications for our lives and communities today. The alternative, in this time of palpably sweeping human change, is of course to wait and react later – quite likely lowering our individual and collective prospects, not for the future but in the present too.

Reasonably clear trends in our rapidly evolving technology and industrial economy, our new “techonomy” as some call it, point to an urgent need and critical new opportunity to rethink and begin to improve the ways we typically now live and value today. These trends suggest that our personal lifestyles and operating models are often far too rooted in pre-industrial conceptions of life than is now possible or wise.

Importantly, this needed re-thinking of our modern values and living standards involves exploring new options for the way we pattern work and consumption, and thus life more generally, amidst our prosperous new industrial state – options that may greatly and even almost immediately improve our health, happiness, and quality of life. For this reason, if people of our time believe we have entered a new age, or are approaching one quickly, I will concur wholeheartedly. But I will also suggest that almost all of us still miss the essential nature and undervalue the importance of the basic change in our human circumstances that has occurred or is now occurring.

Judging the question from the standpoint of our individual and collective fitness and flourishing, I will propose that this essential new age of ours is one not of mysticism and impending clairvoyance, but one where human beings are or soon will be creating, for the first time in our species history, more material wealth than is needed to optimize our health, quality of life, and long-term adaptiveness. Whatever the exact threshold to this new human state of excess general wealth, I will argue that it marks a critical transition to an unparalleled and powerful new species milieu for us – but one that is potentially quite problematic and even predictably regressive and life-limiting, if misunderstood and we remain immersed in pre-industrial values and life patterns.

As I will explore in the discussion that follows, this essential trend of our industrial epoch involves deep and perhaps permanent changes to our personal lives and global society, and introduces powerful new wealth dynamics that, at least initially, are often acutely counterintuitive to us. For these reasons, the ongoing emergence of our widely-bandied “new economy” brings with it critical and generally unappreciated issues concerning the optimal structure of our individual lives and social systems. In our increasingly wealthy and globalized human state, the goals of human health and freedom compel us all to re-consider and optimize the ways we individually and collectively work and strive for quality of life.

Our new economy

In our discussion, I will consider with you what we clearly understand about current technological, economic, and social trends, especially as they relate to wealth, work, and our modern quality of life potential. I will explore current and historical reasons for and forms of work, showing how they are subject to naturally change and that this process can be deliberately influenced for our general benefit. Finally, I will discuss new life and work options that are realistically and increasingly available to us all, once we begin to actively choose both why and how we will work in the unprecedented new human context that is our industrial age.

Leaving aside precise and thus risky future predictions, I’d like us to focus on what is clearly changing in the world today and therefore nearly certain to impact our global society and economy, and our lives and personal options for work, in the coming decades. To do this, I’ll draw attention to a handful of the largest technological, economic, and social trends in our time. Each of these trends has an observable history and track record, and seems destined to affect life and work for most of us in the next twenty years.

Using this perspective, the most fundamental trend today remains the well-established and still strengthening movement toward a new form of human life based on advanced industrial technology. This trend is of course now global in scope and quickly linking and leveling people and places around the world. One result is the reemergence of a new global mass culture, where people of newer generations have more in common across the world than with people of older generations within their traditional settings. The resulting wired economy and increasingly global civilization of our time drives and is driven by the continued evolution and convergence of human science and technology, as well as a general global climate of economic and political liberalization.

Looking at this first and overarching trend, the development of modern technology and social institutions can be seen as a synergistic, interrelated, and compounding dyad, gradually but increasingly building to create a new human state that is more homogeneous, potentially more transparent and intelligent, and in any case far wealthier than before industrialization. In this sense, this principal trend is a creative and destructive development, upsetting old cultures and institutions, and old technologies and their institutions, in favor of new ones. Overall, this change is generally progressive, in that overall income, education, and longevity are all reliably increasing in the industrializing world. Importantly for our discussion, however, industrial increases in health, happiness, and sustainability, via more rational life patterns and social policies, are as of yet only beginning to occur in the most advanced and health-conscious areas of the industrialized world – notably northern Europe.

Within the specific trend of evolving technology, we can see that an increasing number of the most influential new technologies are now primarily soft (infotech, biotech) rather than hard (machines, infrastructure), the latter of which dominated earlier in the industrial revolution. As consequence of this evolution in our state of technology, and the new public investments and commercial markets that support them, technological innovation is now proceeding at an accelerating pace and the result is an increasing condition of techonomy. This upward trend in technological development and the infusion of high technology into economic and social life is partly a consequence of the relative ease with which soft technologies can be created, disseminated, and re-adapted, and partly from the continuing progression of earlier hard technologies. Together, the result is the rapid technological developments now around us, ones that excite and bewilder us, as I suggested before, especially when we attempt to think about how these technologies are converging and what might come from their combinations.

Critical work-related consequences of today’s trend of accelerating industrial technology, and human economics increasingly based on or using advanced technologies, are first that the nature of work is rapidly changing and second that the need for work itself is potentially greatly lessening. Each of these developments is now well underway and affects almost all of us already, in ways we can plainly see but struggle to comprehend holistically. However, if we focus our attention on the clearest and strongest trends in our techonomy and the consequential changes it already is bringing to the nature of work, however, two nearly certain and highly-actionable economic developments immediately come into view.

First, older natural resource and long-cycle industrial production is now rapidly shifting to more advantageous areas around the world. This work-related trend is driven by new global transportation and communication technology, existing imbalances in wage levels, and social policies favoring open economic borders. The second work-related development is that industrial-age operations of all sorts also becoming increasingly automated, principally via new information and robotics technology, with more and more repetitive processing work conducted by machines and with reduced human involvement. Combining these two trends, which now extend beyond factory production to include many administrative operations and professional services, we have good reason to expect that different and ultimately far fewer people will be needed, in the years ahead, to produce almost all of the goods and services we know well today (from clothing and food to routine financial and medical services).

Whether industrial production in an information age will follow the earlier path of agricultural production in an industrial age – with employment in traditional areas plunging rapidly from over 90% to about 1% of the population – remains to be seen, but it seems certain that substantial alterations in familiar industrial work patterns are now well underway and should continue in this general direction across the developed world. As we can all now see, work is rapidly moving and quickly changing, and it promises to continue to move and change in the years immediately ahead of us. The result is likely to be far less work in traditional areas of the economy in the developed world, an uptick of traditional industrial work in less developed areas, but a longer-term trend of less work overall in its traditional industrial forms throughout the world. The effect of these trends will of course be disruptive, even as this change will permit new economic advances and lead to vast new increases in aggregate human wealth.

These overarching and interrelated trends in technology and our globalizing economy suggest that a reasonably radical change in the basic nature of industrial life and work is now well underway – and that we are all well-advised to position for disruptive change in our lives and communities. Though the precise contours of this transformation are hard to determine perfectly, it is probable that these changes will affect most of us, and even may mark the beginning or clear emergence of a new epoch for our human species, as many now suggest. Regardless of how you live and work today, this way seems destined to be substantially altered over the next twenty years, and likely to a far greater extent than it was over the previous twenty years. Our world will be increasingly global, technological, and re-grounded in new values and institutions.

I suggested before and would like to emphasize that we have good reason to believe that these contemporary transformations have the potential to be quite positive overall, as long as we rise to the occasion of this emerging new human condition – specifically, by leading our advancing scientific and technological state to serve and optimize our personal and collective well-being. By this, I mean acting intelligently, attentively, and pragmatically, today and over time, to ensure needed alignment of our evolving technology and industrial economy with our natural needs and modern opportunities for progressive health, vitality, and growth. As we will discuss, this alignment has both individual and collective dimensions that will require ongoing activism on our part, being far from an inevitable outcome of the techonomic changes at work today. Notably, this activism includes re-thinking the ways we structure work for ourselves and others, and the express and implicit goals and incentives we bring to economic life more generally.

To underscore the potentially positive nature of the changes around us, I would again point out that wealth and educational levels are now accelerating, apparently on par with our accelerating technology and clearly without historical precedent, even if the distribution of this new wealth and the benefits of increased education are not yet optimally distributed and in keeping with the recommendations of modern health science. Our growing wealth is also being produced more efficiently and less harmfully than ever before. Today, productivity levels are rising across the industrial world, mundane and hazardous work is increasingly delegated to machines, and worker health and environmental controls are gradually but steadily improving (though arguably still far too slowly versus our potential).

On balance, these developments suggest that the economic and social changes underway in our time are circularly preparing us, in part at least, to better address the new challenges and quality of life opportunities they are certain to contain. In fact, the tenability of this last idea underlies yet another large body of authorship in our time, predicting a new world order where people enjoy a standard of living unimagined in earlier times. Pine and Gilmore, for example, propose that industrial and consumer markets are naturally evolving along a general path from the resource and labor intensive provision of raw materials, goods, and services toward a new emphasis on the technology-enabled and person-to-person delivery of compelling and valuable, if still uncertain and potentially unhealthy, experiences and transformations.

While our young techonomy remains changing and unfolding, and its full consequences and eventual contours are still well-obscured to us, there is data to suggest that a trend toward progressive conditions is evident already and growing, especially in the most advanced, health-focused, socially-conscious parts of the technologically-developed world. Here, we can see new emphasis on the consumption of information, entertainment, and recreation over traditional goods and services, as is predicted by some, along with a new focus on individual health and collective sustainability, a new human state and use of our burgeoning industrial wealth that is increasingly possible for all.

Given the background trends we have discussed of globalization and automation in traditional areas of the economy, plus the likely exponential growth of wealth and work in emerging new high technology sectors of the economy, we have compelling reasons to believe that significant and lasting trends are already well developed affecting where and how we will work in the years ahead. And because of increasing education levels, and growing health and social consciousness in the industrial world, we also have good reason to suspect that increasing opportunities to re-think why and when we work are emerging as well, through the use and active management our new global techonomic wealth. The example of our most prosperous and socially-oriented industrial democracies – who now enjoy the highest health and quality of life standards in the world and are moving rapidly toward environmental sustainability – make a strong case for this last point.

Whether our coming economic and social changes will be predominantly positive throughout our increasingly interconnected world, however, seems an essential question to keep in discussion, especially wherever clear progressive individual and social action is absent today – to emphasize health and quality of life amidst our ever-increasing aggregate wealth potential, the increasing creative and destructive power of our advancing technologies, and the ever more engrossing demands made on our time by our evolving techonomy.

A brief history of work

Long before our globalizing techonomy, well before industrialization, and even millions of years before agriculture, people worked. The long history of human work is both interesting and offers important insights into the optimization of work in our own rapidly-changing times.

In our earlier life directly in wild nature, we worked first so that we could eat, secure ourselves from environmental threats, and participate in the life of our natural commune. There is data that people living in nature also worked for social harmony and personal enjoyment – in ways unrelated to our immediate survival needs – promoting positive emotions within ourselves and our natural social groups for their own sake or to increase our general well-being. As evidence of this last point, consider what are likely clan and band-strengthening aboriginal body markings and cave art, elaborate social customs among pre-agricultural people, and involved early Neolithic earthworks and structures like Stonehenge.

Importantly for our discussion, based on examinations of aboriginal people and other primate behavior, our best scientific estimates are that pre-agricultural people worked at foraging, security, and essential social functions about four hours a day. They did this most days and, since there were only limited ways to store wealth (essentially only through social obligations), they worked during the entire course of their lives. In addition, much of their remaining waking time involved informal social activities and play, which can be seen as modes of work in areas not required for survival but that are often still health-enhancing. This general pattern of natural work is likely to have dominated throughout the more than five million-year period of human life that preceded the agricultural and industrial ages.

From a traditional civilized or mercantile perspective, earlier human life can be viewed as quite basic and precarious, even as we have reason to believe that our natural milieu was one that was often emotionally and experientially richer and more satisfying than much of life today. Human life in wild nature, in an important sense, has been pointedly recast by science as the original “experience economy” and shown to be the foundation of all instinctually-pleasing goods, services, and experiences we may seek to create or consume today. Indeed, the prospect of dwelling intimately (but safely) alongside the potent forces of nature is now a compelling goal for many modern people, engendering the growing adventure and ecotourism industry and exurban developments of our times.

Because of our advancing technology and burgeoning industrial wealth, a declining percentage of people of course now work to eat. Owing to ongoing technological advances and economic innovations, and the new priorities and opportunities for work they naturally engender, there are also correspondingly limited economic prospects for people seeking careers in food production. A recent study of household budgets allocated to food purchases in the developed world found a range from about 5-20%, an amount that is fundamentally lower than in the pre-agricultural, pre-industrial, and still industrializing parts of the world.

With increasing agricultural innovation and automation, and developing human knowledge and technology generally, the number of people employed or seeking work in the production of food continues to decline each year. It’s easy to understand why. Take an example economy where everyone works all the time for food and collectively they produce just enough food for everyone to survive. If one person devises a new skill or technology to produce their own food in half the time, they will be freed to either produce excess food for barter or to trade their innovation for food or other items of value. In either case, the result is the same. Across countless innovations, freeings of time (added productivity), and new opportunities for barter, the economy will progress to higher order modes of production and consumption (with prices set by the relative costs of, or alternative uses for, raw materials, labor, and technology). In principle, this process should proceed until all human wanting is satisfied, but as we will discuss, the fact of uneven or unlimited potential consumption naturally fuels open-ended and even life-limiting human wanting – instinct-based but unnatural wanting that must be activity informed and mitigated to ensure optimal personal and social health amidst affluence.

As income or tradable goods available for non-food uses increases in any developing economy, so does the need and opportunity for work in the new areas of the economy. This natural growth in the demand for work is a basic principle of economics, one that predicts 99 percent of us will not sit around on the ground waiting for our next meal once agriculture is automated and requires only the services of one percent of us. This principle equally predicts that we will all not sit on our sofas once products and services fall easily from the clouds, though there is perhaps some contrary evidence to this claim. In either case, this basic economic principle does not apply to simpler animals, ones with a more limited intelligence and capacity to imagine and want.

Instead of stopping at food, self-preservation, and essential group cohesiveness, human wanting leads to advancing economies that naturally evolve technology and resource uses to provide a generally wealthy life for their societies, soon with a principal focus on things other than provisioning subsistence life. For this reason, most of us now work to acquire and produce goods and services in areas ranging widely from traditional human preoccupations. As suggested, an increasing number of us may now have begun to work for and principally produce experiences and transformations. And of course a growing number of us today do not need and want to work at all – owing to adequate non-work income or the existence of this condition in others – though this trend exists alongside clear science pointing to a natural human need to work in some form to remain optimally healthy.

Thus, in our now rapidly evolving and technologically-rich state of human life and work, the reasons for work are significantly changed from earlier natural and agricultural life, and even from earlier industrial times. Equally, there is strong evidence to suspect that work is now changing further and perhaps more rapidly than ever before. Though the exact nature of these changes is not entirely certain, a new and greatly changed economy seems clearly developing in our time – one that is likely to obliquely alter or permit us to actively choose the reasons and ways we work.

Why and how we work today

Why and how we each work is unique and individualized to some degree, but there are of course recurring patterns of work opportunities and choices across different economic settings and personal circumstances. These patterns, in fact, are ones we all can observe and learn from to increase our self-understanding and make superior commitments of our time, in and out of work.

I have highlighted already that, as the productivity and state of a human economy advances, the needs and opportunities for work naturally evolve and change, affecting everyone in the economy. The evolution of work in this way can be shown to occur along fairly but not entirely predictable lines, and thus ones that are subject to variation and therefore choice and influence. This essential fact of economic life, in all times, is easy to understand but is often overlooked in the way we approach our individual and collective work and lifestyle choices.

But understanding that the reasons for work and the forms of work have changed over time, and that they are changing now and perhaps can be deliberately influenced more rapidly and intentionally than ever before, proves to be a critical gateway to perceptive new insights about how and why we might work, today and in the future. This is true individually, with respect to the personal work and life choices we make, and it is true across whole societies, especially given the advancing techonomy of our time – and the surplus aggregate wealth and reduced need for work, relative to the goal of optimal total health, that I have suggested it increasingly is producing.

As we consider more optimal work patterns for ourselves, our communities, and global society, today and for the future, let me emphasize again that some amount of work and certain patterns of socially-oriented endeavor can be shown scientifically to be vital aspects of healthy human life in all economic conditions. Various studies, for example, have linked protracted idleness and social disengagement with cognitive instability and reduced physical and subjective well-being (see, for example, the psychologists Csikszentmihalyi and Langer), while a lack of progressive goals in daily life has been correlated with poorer health and life quality outcomes (see Zimbardo, among many others).

At the same time, we must also consider the fact that excessive and poorly considered work and consumption patterns, especially amidst the unnatural human conditions of high general affluence or highly unequal affluence, are both naturally likely and nearly certain paths to reduced health and inferior quality of life for individuals and communities relative to our objective potential (see the economist Frank). For these reasons, the question of why and how we should work is important and relevant to us all.

Ultimately, our goals for work should form a quest to optimize our individual and collective efforts, at each level of technology and productivity, given our opportunities and needs for health, well-being, and adaptiveness. In practice, this means reducing, better equalizing, and naturalizing our amounts and forms of work and consumption from recent historic highs toward more ideal levels that reflect our rapidly changing technological potential but only slowly changing natural health needs. This change has obvious and ongoing social policy implications, but can begin at the individual level immediately, in the form of new work-related choices that improve quality of life and equally begin to influence social norms and expectations.

In less industrially-developed national economies today, or in less affluent segments within developed but highly unequal ones, the preponderance of work efforts remain generally directed at and involved in the attainment of the essentials of life, including maintaining personal and family currency within one’s geographic community or peers. In addition to ensuring food and security, and meeting social commitments, this work focus typically includes seeking adequate housing, clothing, and transportation, as well as other basic services.

As we should expect, where local economies have developed beyond this level today, or where individual wealth has increased beyond the average within them, work has naturally evolved to become directed more toward and preoccupied with the production of conveniences and comforts. In areas of our general economy where productivity and wealth is further increased, as we can see in much of the developed world today, work and the use of wealth has already turned principally to the manufacture and consumption of status symbols, pleasurable or mitigating services and experiences, and perhaps even now to enlarging transformations.

This natural progression of work and consumption patterns is predicted by behavioral economics and is not hard to understand. After all, what working person would not want a more convenient life, and a more comfortable one too, especially when a relatively high amount of their time is devoted to work. And who of us can claim no desire for greater status and its social benefits, or for exotic and novel pleasures, even as we may misjudge the nature, experience, and larger implications of widespread status and pleasure-seeking in an advanced technological society. The instincts for status and enjoyment among social animals, after all, are as natural as and often supportive of the drive for food, security, and belonging. Each long proved helpful to individual gene advancement in our naturally gregarious and precarious state on the plains of Africa, and no doubt has long been strongly selected in humans and pre-humans.

Thus, given our received nature and adequate freedom of choice, we naturally are prone to foster technological evolution and economic growth, and even a wealthy and educated industrialized global society, where the needs, opportunities, and reasons for work gradually but steadily change, with a clear central tendency. As an open human economy advances, our patterns of work and our goals for work gradually become more subtle and relativistic, and less about health-promoting sustenance, security, or social functioning. Work and wealth become more aimed at emotional well-being, in the increasingly cultivated, naturally isolated, progressively unequal, and potentially disaffecting and unhealthy human conditions that ensue from natural or relatively unfettered techonomic progress.

Today, most of us believe that we have much greater personal and economic freedom than ever before. While we are perhaps less physically constrained than in the past, this general conclusion seems at odds with the regular and even predictable patterns of life choices that we generally make amidst our freedom – an incongruity that can serve as a source for important new personal insights into our basic nature. In fact, some scientists now hypothesize that human freedom is at best stagnating and is perhaps already declining amidst modern affluence and technological development, as we become increasingly mired in unnatural inequality and numbing complexity, and perhaps subject to the growing dominance of “supernormal” influences on our thinking and behavior. (Supernormal influences or stimuli are evolved or created environmental features that strongly activate our natural instincts and often unconsciously override our behavior and inhibit optimal decision-making. A simple example is unwanted indulgence in sweets when they are presented to us. A more complex one is the relentless appeal of high status/high stress career paths.)

These ideas are not just theory. They offer critical insights into the ways we work and consume today, and can lead us to important new opportunities for increased health and quality of life. They predict that when we observe actual industrial-age behavior, in our growing condition of surplus and unequal wealth, we will find that status-based aims and escapist pleasures are the growing reasons for and sources of work for many of us. Where wealth is not adequately regulated, they predict growing disaffection, estrangement, and feelings of scarcity and insecurity amidst unprecedented human striving and achievement. And, perhaps most importantly, they predict that the personal and social choices driving these trends will generally be poorly articulated, often made unthinkingly or in a highly rationalized manner, and far from optimal for us individually and collectively.

In our new human setting of high general wealth and perceived isolation from natural threats (though not human ones), we can readily see that the pursuit of status symbols now typically encompasses the quantity and quality of the possessions we seek, our desired level and area of education, and even the type of work we want and will do. Pleasure and security goals, in turn, strongly drive and reduce the quality of our choices as well, and play a growing role in decisions about recreation and non-work uses of our time and income – as we seek new sources of refuge from the unsatisfying status and possession-hungry materialism that increasingly marks our young industrial age, and that we each help to create through our individual actions patterned in this mode.

With these ideas in mind, it perhaps becomes clearer why many people writing about our rapidly emerging future worry that our human condition is one where scientific, technological, and economic advances may soon outstrip our personal and social control systems. In essence, they argue that our present state is one that is enabled but not yet adequately informed by science, and by an adequate understanding of the workings and idiosyncrasies of our previously-evolved human nature. This line of argument begins from new appreciation that our human nature is not a blank slate and inevitably brings with it important and often unconscious instinctive tendencies and susceptibilities that we must manage to optimize life amidst modern conditions.

But I do not mean to imply that all is not pessimism. As this discussion shows, our human nature also includes capacities to examine and override our native instincts and foibles, capacities that have been evolving since before human life itself (via the growing forebrains of earlier species in our line). Importantly, in becoming aware of current risks of reduced health and freedom amidst advancing wealth and technology, the hidden presence and potential power of irrational goals, norms, and behaviors can be progressively exposed through science and used to help us make more optimal personal and collective choices. As I have written about elsewhere, a needed and waiting general transition is now possible with rising global affluence and educational levels. This change is to more scientifically-informed, self-aware, and health-attentive personal and collective choices amidst advanced technological life – in the ways we live, work, and consume – one that, for me, is the central challenge of our shared life in the modern industrial age.

How we will fare with this challenge is hardly a foregone conclusion, however, even as the stakes are as high as they have ever been in our history. Many today are deeply concerned with this new human dilemma, even as perhaps most are yet not. I am hardly alone in proposing that, over the next few decades perhaps, we will either rise to the occasion of our advancing science and technology to achieve unprecedented human health and flourishing, or we will increasingly succumb to a world ever more complex and powerful than our native inclinations and intuitions – a world that may well naturally self-evolve to unconsciously and even pleasurably dominate us. Homo sapiens will evolve to become freer and more intelligent Homo sentiens, or gradually become enshrouded within our techonomy, as a new and perhaps far frailer Homo economicus.

I personally remain optimistic, but also realistic, knowing we have the natural capacity to adapt to our advancing technology and seeing many signs of new progress. At the same time, I am of course also motivated by the many flourishing dogmas, untested ideas, and failing traditional norms and ideologies within our industrial state to write and speak out for new modern wisdom to match our new modern condition.

Optimizing wealth and work

Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future, or somewhere in between, two essential points from our discussion are that the specifics of how and why we work are deeply comingled phenomena, and that the underlying motivations for and resulting forms of work are often greatly underappreciated. Ultimately each has its roots in our evolved human nature and the manner in which this nature is expressed in different technological and economic conditions. This “predictably variable” model of our nature explains a great deal of the general and evolving features of human life and work before our time, and can be used to forecast features that will emerge today and in the future under different social conditions. While these changing features of work and life are ones that many of us take for granted, we can instead use them to open the way to new self-awareness and choice, and to far freer and healthier forms of work and life, in our time and for the future.

This way forward to freer and healthier life in the industrial age begins from a new questioning and appreciation of what the optimal amounts and forms of wealth might be – in our lives and for human society overall, and today and in future stages of technological development. In any economy, obtaining the rudimentary elements of life, plus whatever comforts and conveniences we might want, and the supernormal status symbols and experiences we feel compelled to pursue all involve a need for at least some wealth (meaning sources of income, or useable or tradable resources). As we have discussed, our individual and collective goals and norms for wealth greatly influence technological investments and the shape of the economy, and thus the forms of work sought and available at any point in time. But our norms for wealth need not be optimal, and most likely will not naturally be optimal for the reasons we have considered. For this reason, absent conscious and informed choice, it is unlikely that our prototypical work and life patterns will be either.

I previously introduced the idea that, before industrial society, inadequate general wealth was a real and persistent problem for us all and a general feature of human life before our times. Both pre-industrial and pre-agrarian people lacked sufficient general wealth and resources to reliably ensure their general survival, let alone foster progressive individual life and healthy and sustainable community life in the ways that are now possible. Importantly for our discussion, I should add that, after the rise of agrarian civilization, what wealth that did exist was often distributed so unequally and, owing to our nature in such conditions, used so irrationally and myopically by those that possessed it, that an identical outcome was realized for nearly all people despite gradually increasing wealth levels over time.

Today, we all can sense and science increasingly confirms that excess aggregate wealth (versus our health needs) is now the growing rule in all industrialized nations and most industrializing ones, even if this new wealth is frequently still not yet distributed as optimally and used as wisely as it might be. As I write this, poverty levels are rapidly declining and living conditions are quickly improving throughout much of the world. A new and highly desirable global middle class is forming, but unfortunately alongside a new global plutocracy that threatens our general health and well-being by both its presence and general conduct. Given these developments, I have suggested that rising industrial wealth in our time marks the beginning of a true “new age” for human life, one where excess wealth is the rule for the first time in our history, and that this new human condition of surplus wealth brings with it a distinct new set of natural health problems and opportunities.

In place of historical worries about hunger, insecurity, and discomfort, in our new condition of advanced technology and high aggregate wealth levels, we must instead attend to the real prospect of detrimental prosperity and discordant wealth, and the important natural health risks that the competitive pursuit and unexamined use of superfluous wealth can engender for us all. Obvious signs of excess wealth and its detrimental, life-limiting effects are now in widespread evidence around us. They include irrational consumption and display, unhealthy individualism and social withdrawal, and disinvestment in known health enablers amidst adequate collective resources. All are wealth-related distortions of modern life that take us from our maximal general health, happiness, and adaptability.

Though the question of the optimal amount of human wealth has been raised occasionally before our time, we now can pose it with true relevance and even an urgent need for concrete answers – since scientific and technological limits on the creation of wealth appear to have been breeched and virtually unlimited material wealth is now a real possibility. And within this contemporary question is another question, a perennial and far more familiar one, a question long debated and now the subject of considerable new scientific scrutiny: what is the optimal distribution of wealth, or the ideal amount of material inequality, in a human society with adequate total wealth?

If each of these questions initially seems difficult or impossible to answer in a reliable way, there is a simple method to recast them and make each question far more approachable. But use of this method first requires us to first appreciate a particular dynamic of human wealth that I have only hinted at up until now: once a certain base level of wealth is achieved in a society, each added amount of wealth or each added degree of material inequality present in the society can circularly influence social norms and conditions, and paradoxically create a new and higher total amount of wealth needed for its members to function within it – both objectively and subjectively.

This idea explains why the cost of a comfortable, socially-acceptable, and even viable life increases in nations and metropolitan areas with higher levels of material wealth and inequality. More consumption is demanded by individuals to preserve emotional well-being in the face of higher consumption generally, or may be required when increased consumption objectively precludes older, simpler, and healthier modes of living (for example, as when the growth of vehicles chokes off pedestrian transportation). Thus, excessive or excessively unequal wealth can fuel both subjective wanting and the objective need for still more wealth on purely referential grounds. In this way, unmanaged wealth can create the irrational, open-ended, and unstable social conditions that I have suggested exist already in many parts of the world – conditions that objectively limit total health, well-being, and adaptiveness amidst and even because of rising wealth and resource use.

To open up questions of optimal wealth to new discussion, the method I have in mind comes from the social philosopher Rawles. In its essence, his well-known approach involves rationally setting both an ideal wealth level and optimal distribution formula for society behind a conceptual veil of anonymity – that is, designing an ideal society and economy without understanding our potential place in it.

In using Rawles’ method, which is called reasoning from an “original position,” our consideration of needed and available wealth is not regarding ourselves or anyone we know, but instead for an anonymous group of people we cannot possibly know (and who may include us, but potentially with a different social position and even varying interests, aptitudes, and attitudes than are ours at present). In practice, use of the original position makes questions of optimal wealth and other social conditions far less personal and looming, and far simpler or at least easier to work on. I should add that the approach does require scientific investigation to validate and inform the assumptions we use when employing the method, helping us to compensate for natural biases we all have when thinking abstractly or about ourselves and others.

Given the dominant uses of wealth in society we have discussed, and the dominant forms of work and endeavor that result from this use, our movement to an original position or apriori view of our circumstances reframes and sheds light on our life in industrial society in a powerful and startling new way. As I have suggested, we almost immediately begin to suspect that, on average, people now do have enough wealth and perhaps more wealth than is objectively needed for optimal personal and collective happiness and health. I say this, including our collective health’s important long-term dimensions and needs for social investments to ensure the natural progressiveness, adaptability, and sustainability of our species over time.

In practice, re-examining our current circumstances from the original position can create a profound new appreciation of the enormous total amount of human wealth now present in the industrialized world. It can lead to essential questions about the desirability of our current uses and distribution of wealth, especially when we consider the personal incentives and circular dynamics the presence of wealth inevitably creates in any human society. Finally, use of the original position can guide us to consider and then scientifically test superior economic and social arrangements, ones that would benefit all or the vast majority of people at current or even reduced total wealth and work levels.

Unhealthy inequality

With this grounding in Rawles’ method of thinking from the original position, we are ready to discuss more objectively what an ideal level of personal or family wealth might look like in an advanced human society seeking optimal health and adaptability, and then the specific steps we each can now take to ensure that our own life and work patterns achieve and encourage this level of wealth in new, sustainable, and health-advancing ways.

Since I am about to draw what may perhaps be several counterintuitive conclusions about optimal amounts of wealth, let’s spend a moment more fully grounding our discussion in the problem of excess (health-limiting) inequality. As you will see, this centuries-old issue is still poorly appreciated, and it manifests itself directly but predictably in the otherwise curious modern phenomenon I have introduced already: the problem of widespread human wanting amidst unprecedented industrial wealth.

Objectively, total and average human wealth has never been greater than today, and yet wanting and the desire for still more wealth persists in our time and has perhaps never been greater as well. As suggested, this last trend can be shown to greatly influence and even greatly limit the quality of our personal choices, our public policies, and our work and life patterns. Tellingly, this modern situation of chronic wanting occurs at all levels of income in our industrial society today, and is decreased only where specific social or personal factors are present – notably ones that foster subjective feelings of equality and belonging, thus naturally curbing human excessive feelings of inadequacy, scarcity, and competitiveness with others (see Frank or Diener).

Because of the natural effects we have discussed of unmanaged wealth in human society, life and work in much of our increasingly prosperous technological society – one I have portrayed as scientifically enabled but not yet adequately scientifically informed – is unintentionally evolving with an escalating, rather than declining, focus on and demand for wealth. Instead of using our new industrial prosperity to invest in reliable background and social contributors to our health and well-being, and thereby naturally curtail irrational wealth creation and resource use, most nations still curiously and yet predictably use our current or growing condition of surplus wealth principally to garner even more wealth, especially in its largely health-reducing private forms. When I say predictably here, I use the word to mean in keeping with our primitive instincts for personal power, pleasure, and security. By the word curiously, I mean in ways that are clearly contrary to our best interests, our best available science, and the transformative possibilities clearly waiting in the more broad-minded uses of our newfound wealth. In the end, our global society is one where our attitudes toward and uses of wealth are still largely rationalized and historically-oriented, rather than truly rational and future-oriented.

As I have suggested, and as is revealed by a number of important natural experiments that vary human wealth levels and its distribution patterns, the reason for our obvious irrationality regarding our wealth is rooted principally, not in inadequate knowledge or understanding per se, but in the phenomenon of poorly-distributed and excessive unequal wealth itself (and the narrowed emotions and thinking this state reliably produces in us). This decidedly unnatural and alienating human condition supernormally excites and fuels our natural status, security, and pleasure-seeking instincts, encouraging dominating patterns of thinking and behavior amidst excess wealth that is covetous and fearful, familiar to us all and yet unnatural, and far from optimal (when compared with the attitudes we adopt and choices we make from the original position). The regressive condition of excessive material inequality naturally compounds to increase human wanting, and reduce subjective well-being and objective quality of life, amidst otherwise adequate wealth – in practice by driving elevated and irrational levels of human self-focus, competitiveness, and discord amidst factual abundance.

Considerable research (see Agyris and various comparative GINI studies) suggests that as material and social inequality, increases, the quality of our behavior and cognitive functioning, and our physical health and subjective well-being, is progressively undermined and degraded. The effect is to trigger feelings of environmental scarcity and insecurity within the social group, and to move us from a primary orientation toward what I have elsewhere termed our more advanced, cooperative, and intelligent “beta-cycle” life patterns (the hallmark of natural intra-group mammalian and human life) to more primitive, competitive, and reactive “alpha-cycle” patterns.

Why is this? Because with intelligent and complex social animals like humans, context greatly influences our functioning and the manner in which our nature and its underlying portfolio of instincts and imperatives are expressed. Any excessively unequal distribution of wealth and esteem, especially when seemingly unwarranted and thus unfair, can influence our perceived standing and self-worth. Whether we are the recipients of unequal wealth or not, the presence of excessive inequality predisposes us to more primitive and less adaptive behavioral and cognitive patterns (taking us from our potential for a general disposition of magnanimity and creativity toward meanness and pettiness, and then toward pitilessness and even cruelty).

Consider yourself in an unequal setting. When we are relatively advantaged, meeting basic needs is easy, we enjoy unequal power, and research shows that we become naturally biased to be more belligerent and motivated to further or harvest the advantageous position we enjoy. When we are relatively disadvantaged, attaining added wealth or standing becomes an imperative, whether for social currency or to satisfy instinctive drives for status and self-worth. But since we have reduced relative power, this imperative often leads to frustration and in any case generally fuels aggressiveness, in a companion way to the earlier condition of possessing superior power. States of both higher and lower power thus naturally discourage the higher human functioning that is possible and generally encouraged by the conditions of relative equality, belonging, and common endeavor that were the hallmark of our earlier natural social conditions.

In positions of high and low social status, and even of intermediate status in excessively unequal human conditions, our essential orientation and dominant behaviors are altered and reduced from their optimal state, leading to compounding choices that prove circularly regressive and health- reducing. Importantly, and as predicted by our “predictably variable” model of human behavior, this dynamic can be observed empirically at many levels of situational wealth. When sustained, unnatural human inequality taps and then fuels a waiting instinctive bias toward the irrational and chronic “luxury fever” that Frank has written about – a social, economic, and technological state of wanting amidst wealth that has many deleterious side-effects and quality of life implications for us all.

Since we all naturally and instinctively experience the tug of unequal status and the desire to create either more dominant or secure positions, whenever we confront conditions of inequality and estrangement, we all can understand this natural human dynamic intuitively. But it is clear from research in inequality that we all poorly appreciate (absent science) just how powerful these inequality effects are when extended across large social groups and maintained over time, and especially when they are magnified and aggravated by high amounts of aggregate wealth.

For the purposes of considering optimal wealth and work, for ourselves and collectively, we can conclude that a focus on increasing wealth is rational when inadequate wealth is a real problem. By this, I mean when a lack of individual or collective wealth impinges on the meeting of our natural needs and when added wealth is a direct means to added health, quality of life, and natural adaptiveness. Once human knowledge and economies progress and industrialization is achieved, through the general pursuit of higher wealth for this reason, we have good reason to believe that industrial technology will soon provide adequate and then excessive total wealth however (compared with our objective needs for optimal health, in the fullest sense of this word).

In conditions of high general wealth, and given the waiting dynamics of our human nature, if surplus wealth and regressive inequality are not adequately managed, we can expect wealth-seeking to continue, long after the optimal amount of wealth is achieved and even in the face of high negative impacts on health, quality of life, social cohesiveness and ecological sustainability. In such cases of runaway wealth-seeking, our natural health, well-being, and adaptiveness can be expected to become increasingly pressured and disinvested in, instead of reliably increased and cultivated.

Wealth within our health

If life dedicated to work aimed at the irrational and coercive, wealth-focused goals we have discussed – the attainment of ever-retreating and vicarious symbols of personal status (proxies for natural fitness) or increasingly esoteric experiences promising escape from the stresses of materialism and individualistic living – seems degrading and undesirable, you are not alone.

Many of us today of course question this approach to modern life, and can see its unexamined and historically-based quality, even as most yet do not. And yet, in fairness to this paradoxical, detrimental, and only quasi-scientific status quo of our time, I would point out that our industrial conditions are recently emerged and the problem of excess general wealth is only now becoming more fully understood.

Pre-industrial writers on the nature of progressive society, examining their topic amidst conditions of general poverty and material scarcity before or at the dawn of the industrial age, simply could not tangibly envision our current circumstances, especially our advanced technology and still accelerating productive capacity, and the facts and compounding effects of pervasive industrial wealth and traditional inequality on society overall. With some exceptions, they saw growing wealth naively and in a more limited way – as a general good and clear remedy to the problem of inadequate comfort and security before them, even as perpetual means to life, liberty, and happiness. Few could see, and none had scientific evidence, that there were natural limits to the amounts and forms of wealth for human societies seeking long-term health, cohesiveness, adaptiveness, and sustainability.

In our time, we of course live amidst the growing reality of excess general wealth, and have increasing science to suggest that our goals for industrial wealth must move from traditional conceptions and be made to reside within the larger project of progressive human health, well-being, and natural flourishing. We increasingly can both sense and examine empirically how excessive wealth and material inequality can be real and tangible barriers to healthy life and human happiness, just as inadequate general wealth was to each in pre-industrial life. Extreme and disproportionate wealth now can be shown to work antagonistically on our natural instincts and against our personal and general betterment, engendering irrational goals and behaviors and fostering self-reinforcing social norms and systems that reinforce this condition. When left uninformed and unmanaged, these dynamics drive an open-ended focus on wealth and a heightening of regressive competitive behaviors, reducing our physical well-being and causing subjective perceptions of scarcity amidst objective affluence.

Fortunately, with new scientific and self-awareness, and changed social priorities, these undesirable and irrational wealth dynamics can be progressively examined and mitigated, and new and more optimal economic structures and incentives put in place to encourage superior behaviors and social systems. Already, notably in the healthiest and most forward-thinking industrial nations in the world, important steps have been taken to limit private wealth, inequality, and competitiveness – where they appear to impinge on healthy life, intelligent public policies, and adaptive social conditions – with predicted and significant benefits to these nations already (again, see any of number of comparative GINI and health outcome studies now available).

Importantly, these natural experiments in healthier forms of industrial life have produced not just immediate health benefits, they have also fostered new individual and social progressivity and adaptiveness for the future in their host societies. Instead of the regressive and narrowing cycles of irrational wealth-seeking, short-term focus, and alienating individualism that mark the less regulated industrial economies of our time, an alternative and equally compounding dynamic has begun to build in these more health-focused countries. This more intelligent alternative is one that places a new and naturally self-building emphasis on cooperation, more cohesive communities, progressively healthier life patterns, and notably for our discussion, more naturally proportioned and meaningful work.

These new social developments provide important lessons and clear guidance for us all, wherever and however we live and work in today’s emerging global techonomy. They validate the central themes we have discussed regarding our need to better manage and optimize industrial wealth and work. And they suggest that transformed and far healthier life really does wait for us in our new scientific and technological age, if we can gain control and do not succumb to the extraordinary and seductive productive power that is now our species condition.

Why you might work

So, why do you work today? And how do you work?

Given our now reasonably advanced state of science and technology, I would propose that many of us now can and should begin to work and live very differently – for different reasons and in different ways – than most people in our time.

I would specifically propose that, with our advancing industrial conditions, it is now possible to work much less than during previous generations, even if this change requires a more deliberate and conscious approach to work and life than people before our time. This altered approach can allow us to live comfortably and meet all of our material needs, while creating conditions for far healthier and more satisfying life for us and those we influence with the example of our actions. I make this proposal, even amidst a young industrial society still largely mired in pre-industrial and pre-scientific outlooks, unwittingly and circularly allowing itself to be dominated by unhealthy distortions in our predictably variable nature, and principally occupied with irrational uses of our newfound wealth and technological power.

Keeping in mind that some amount of work and socially-engaged endeavor is essential to healthy individual life and a progressively functioning society, I would further propose that, with the new personal freedom that enables and results from reduced time committed to traditional work practices and the modern pursuit of indeterminate wealth, we also have the opportunity to intentionally cultivate and expand important non-work dimensions of healthy life. By this, I mean using our liberated time to pursue and foster higher-order aspects of individual and collective quality of life that wait today in more intelligent and health-seeking uses of our time, again in ways not possible or far more difficult for earlier generations.

These two proposals – that we work less for wealth and live more for our health – form the twin pillars of a gateway to a true new age and real new economy in our time, where our individual and collective health is made paramount and our growing industrial wealth, science, and technology are progressively subordinated to our health needs and opportunities. As our best science now suggests and as we can see emerging in our healthiest industrial nations, this alternative model for life today is one that offers not just abundant wealth and greater security for all, but conditions that are far more personally enjoyable and compelling, and equally far more rational and supportive of the natural adaptiveness we ultimately require for our species health and sustainability over time.

As I write this, many if not most of us work more than people in the past, despite the relative ease with which a happy and comfortable life now can be secured with a fairly relaxed workstyle and health-based lifestyle in nearly all of the industrialized nations of the world. Rather than reducing our workload amidst rising technology, productivity, and affluence, we instead collectively increase it.  And because this trend is largely driven by relativistic measures and supernormal triggers, we are often at a loss to explain our work choices in a satisfying way – especially when pressed to more than simply rationalize or defend our personal behavior and patterns of choice (see Festinger and pendant research examining work and life choices).

Instead of efficiently and expertly working to obtain the wealth we need to optimize our health and quality of life, a large number of us seek more wealth than ever, even as we have more than ever before, and even as researchers examine and highlight our irrational choices, including our feelings of scarcity and stalling happiness amidst increasing industrial affluence (see Frank or Diener). As I have suggested, these familiar hallmarks of our times are clear signs of reduced personal health, uncontrolled natural instincts, and inadequate self-understanding – each driving and driven by ill-considered social norms and public policies amidst our new state of excess wealth. This essential new dynamic of our young techonomy, clear to us with a re-framing of our perspective, is of course still generally obscured by the pull and seeming intractability of our powering economies and the novel innovations they regularly excite us with (importantly, in ways that are objectively health-reducing and unsustainable, both socially and ecologically).

As we have discussed, there are important exceptions to this dominating trend in our rapidly globalizing world, exceptions coming almost exclusively from the healthiest nations in the world today (where forty week work-years are the norm and where four day work-weeks are becoming increasingly common). In these more advanced areas, average health, happiness, longevity, and even prosperity are all now rapidly outstripping areas with less regulated and more unequal industrial economies, weaker social compacts, and more competitive and thus primitive living conditions.

Remarkably, people outside of these healthier areas of the industrial world often look incredulously at these zones of higher human flourishing and their contrarian trends, and genuinely imagine a lower standard of living and more abject conditions, when the reverse is empirically true. But these still too few nations demonstrate the natural power of cooperative human living arrangements, a long developing evolutionary pattern in our species, and the importance of our continual search for more rational and empirically advantageous social systems. Equally, the incredulity of people living in more competitive areas of the world regarding more cooperative life should be cautionary to us all, offering important data on the power and propensity of high “alpha cycle” conditions to narrow and denigrate our general outlook, inhibit our receptivity to new ideas and practical alternatives, and keep us from the full and adaptive exercise of our natural intelligence.

Today, if you work principally for wealth and status symbols, or for diversion and escape from the stress and disaffection that naturally accompanies life in wealth-driven and unduly competitive and individualistic industrial settings, I would like to suggest that you are solving an old problem, from pre-modern times, when wealth was lacking and a clear means to new health and quality of life. I would even add that, through your efforts, you may be directly contributing to our general modern over-solving of this pre-modern problem, and unintentionally adding to the critical new contemporary problem of stationary or declining average health and happiness, amidst ever-increasing aggregate wealth and consumption expectations.

Instead of living in and working for the past, I would encourage you to turn your focus to a new and more compelling problem, an entirely modern problem and the most acute one of our new industrial times. This problem is finding the new individual and collective paths to optimal health amidst industrial wealth. As we have discussed, this new human problem of our time is rooted in our inadequately examined and increasingly irrational general life today. It owes its strength to the fact we are all a people suddenly living in an advanced technological age, a techonomy, without a clear grasp of what this new human condition requires of us or how it naturally influences our thinking and perception.

In our new human state, unlike that of our ancestors, increasingly abundant and even excess wealth is the new normal, but wealth that is inadequately directed at our health and thus wealth that is increasingly self-evolving and an end in itself – potentially pulling us ever further from our health. As a consequence, many of us live now surrounded by unprecedented material surplus and technological assistance, but equally amidst inexorable wanting and seemingly inexplicable disaffection. Our life today is often one within precarious and life-limiting economic and social systems not yet designed for either our optimal benefit or the long-term.

As I have suggested, solving this new central problem of our age involves achieving new scientific and self-awareness, re-framing our modern condition in ways that are truer and that allow new health and quality of life focus, and promoting new social policies and individual choices that progressively enable and encourage this broader and truer sense of ourselves and our human potential.

Having solved the ancient problem of inadequate human wealth, we now can and must turn to our modern opportunity for open-ended natural health and unprecedented human flourishing – in our individual lives and with our choices, and collectively through new awareness of our norms and expectations.

How you might work

In addition to encouraging your support for more optimal social policies that better manage our growing technology and wealth, I would like you to consider a new personal norm for the ways and reasons you work amidst industrial life today. This new norm is intended to improve on the dominant, often self-defeating, and increasingly unhealthy and unsustainable approach to work and consumption in our times. The change in how and why we work can also set the stage for and promote powerful new health enablers in our lives and the broader techonomy around us.

In practical terms, my proposal for improving how you work and enabling new quality of life is quite simple and involves two overlapping efforts. First, I would encourage you to take deliberate steps, beginning today, to alter and improve the way you work and consume until you only need to work roughly six hours a day, four days a week, and forty weeks a year (or roughly 1000 hours per year). Second, as an integral part of this change toward the goal of health-based industrial life, I would encourage you to take concurrent steps to ensure that you are engaged in work that is both personally rewarding and financially adequate – via comparatively skilled work that you can foreseeably sustain and cultivate, and in turn be sustained and enriched by, throughout your life.

This new norm of a 1000 hour work-year of course represents about half the amount of time working per year for many people in the industrial world today. Importantly, the norm envisions work throughout our lives, in progressing and adaptive modes that reflect natural human development and the inevitability of changing economic conditions. It challenges the idea that we can and should work for only a portion of our lives, and the assumption that we must become exhausted prematurely by unhealthy work and life practices at a point shortly after mid-life. In this way, my proposal encourages less work each year spread across a longer number of years. It fosters a more naturally proportioned and satisfying approach to work. It encourages optimal individual and community health, by promoting work and creating adequate wealth and by ensuring time for essential personal and community health investments. The proposal promotes and also anticipates far greater human longevity than in the past through greater individual and community health efforts.

How, you might ask, can you personally structure work in this at once, new and very old and far more natural way, and how might this approach to work alter your broader life options and relationship to the world more generally? You might follow, what will you and others do with the new free time you would gain through this new approach? And where, you might wonder, will your life move without the boom and bust approach to work that we know so well and that often deeply patterns the entirety of our lives? I’ll address these questions quite practically next, and thereby organize the remainder of our discussion.

As I have suggested, this new and far healthier approach to work and life more generally becomes increasingly available to us each year, as the progress of technology transforms older forms of industrial work from a relatively centralized, synchronized, and repetitive practice – occurring in factories, warehouses, shops, and office buildings – to ones that are more decentralized, time and location-flexible, and knowledge-based. In a great leap “back to the future,” more and more work today is occurring or organized over the Internet, generally allowing work to occur asynchronously and from many locations, notably from our homes and even while mobile.

This essential trend of our times is well-summarized by Draves and Coates, who provocatively suggest that information-age work practices and social attitudes will increasingly grow to resemble that of pre-industrial farming, rather than factory and office work, as our work moves away from fixed work systems to the more flexible sowing and harvesting of Internet-based work opportunities. Given this now palpable and clearly growing trend, our personal movement to a 1000 hour work-year, involving expertise or skill-based work that is personally compelling and financially sustainable, increasingly turns on our willingness to approach work in this new-old way – as value-adding workers seeking to consciously participate in a set number of workstreams, in an area of the economy where a large number of workstreams exist – whether we work for a single employer or work source, or for a larger number of clients.

I should add that this change to a new 1000 hour work-year equally depends on our willingness to examine and re-think why we work and how we should spend the totality of our time, and to entertain new perspectives on wealth and its optimal uses. This includes a new willingness to look at our lives and consumption patterns more attentively and rationally, adopting healthier and higher quality approaches to work and other uses of our time and resources wherever we find them. I have suggested that this motivation can come from new scientific and personal awareness, and that each generally encourages skilled work, work as a significant but not overriding part of life, and work that is less directed at wealth, position, and other extrinsic motivations.

As Csikszentmihalyi, Langer, and others have shown, highly engaged and persistently fulfilled people in our time create a personal pattern of intrinsic enjoyment of both their work and life, notably via a robust and intimate engagement in their life generally, and the cultivation of work, consumption, patterns, and goals that are consistent with this intrinsically-lived life. They make an essential move, in other words, from a principal focus on adhering to current social norms and received expectations to a life more closely tied to the meeting of our generally unchanging natural needs and personal preferences.

Owing to the significant gap between current social conventions and our underlying natural health needs, this research also points to the consequential fact that these contented people are still exceptions among us, if increasing ones. The highly-fulfilled among us are often unusually self-aware and/or have highly self-directed personalities, even as they notably present a pattern of widely-varying education and income levels, and even interests, and it’s worth considering these important findings as well. Their exceptional personal qualities remind us that making fundamental changes in either the ways or reasons we work is still a contrarian effort in much of the world, even as this effort often proves far healthier and more satisfying.

Our current pattern of allowing traditional norms and inherited work choices to dominate our lives may be weakening with the evolution of industrial conditions, as we can see in our most advanced nations and communities and their exploration of new social compacts, but in most of the world, the shift to a “real new economy” involving more natural approaches to work and a higher focus on meeting our health needs still requires a breaking against the grain of old social patterns and current industrial norms. To accomplish this transformative shift, a powerful approach and catalyst for change is often needed – and this involves re-thinking work from the standpoint of our natural needs, including our health requirements and opportunities and our personal strengths and preferences.

Re-thinking from our natural needs

I have written elsewhere about science suggesting that human health and quality of life, in all times and in nearly all settings, involves an individual triad of intrinsically-fulfilling and natural need-based behaviors. These essential attributes of naturally fulfilled and healthy human life are rooted in our ancient pre-agricultural life and the evolutionary forces that shaped our species over many millions of years. My natural triad for fulfilled individual life involves an ongoing and personalized focus that ensures outward engagement, skilled and progressive endeavor, and supportive and reciprocating relationships in our lives.

I have also proposed that this basic framework for naturally fulfilling life can be enabled and greatly enhanced when other health-promoting dimensions of earlier natural life are brought to and progressively increased in our modern lives today. My ten dimensions of natural living are taken from the science of our ancient natural past and contemporary quality of life research, and are explained more fully in the HumanaNatura natural health system. The ten dimensions are: autonomy, harmony, community, rhythm, intimacy, growth, movement, security, simplicity, and nature.

Together, when used on a foundation of natural eating and exercise, these ten dimensions are intended as a complete but open-ended guide for pursuing our natural needs as individuals. The ten dimensions provide essential parameters for naturally healthy life but are broad enough to encourage healthy exploration and adaptation. If you want, take a moment to search for and read more about my ten dimensions of natural living, which are published by HumanaNatura.

These new science-based models for our natural fulfillment and progressive quality of life imply a needed general pattern for individual life in all times. They also suggest specific community norms and social policies as well, ones generally encouraging progressively supportive, predominantly cooperative, and intentionally sustainable community environments for all people. As I have suggested in this discussion, these needed policies and norms include the ongoing use of science to find and place optimal limits on societal wealth, inequality, and competitiveness. They also must ensure sufficient cultivation of our self-awareness and understanding to encourage progressive health-seeking patterns of choice at the individual and community levels. In practice, our needed community health and social policy measures form a natural community triad, one that is analogous to my individual triad This community triad seeks conditions of sufficient transparency, equality, and reciprocity to promote social engagement and continuously and circularly move people toward the higher order “beta-cycle” functioning I have introduced and that is characteristic of naturally healthy and adaptive human groups.

Given the remaining focus of our discussion – how we each might individually work more healthily and optimally in our advancing industrial society – I will leave aside for now community and social policy considerations related to the promotion and maintenance of healthy environments for life and work. Instead, I will focus the rest of our discussion on practical steps we each can take in our lives to address the critical problems of excessive industrial work (irrational wealth-creation) and inattentive industrial consumption (irrational wealth-use), helping you to explore and then transcend these critical, pervasive, and unnecessary barriers to progressive health and quality of life today.

To ground our remaining discussion, let’s make our focus decidedly specific and tangible, by considering the needs of a small family seeking naturally healthy life and work and attempting to organize their goals and priorities around their natural needs today. For our purposes, we’ll assume the family has the prototypical nuclear structure of our time: a husband and wife, and two children.

As you will see, using the “original position” method we discussed earlier – to uncover our objective or categorical wealth requirements, by considering what items can be universalized across all or nearly all people – the material requirements of this model industrial-age family are fairly easy to discern and quite revealing. The requirements offer important insights for other family structures, whether larger, smaller, or less typical.

These requirements also make explicit and begin to define in practice the principle we began with: that there is an optimal amount wealth and work, when our goal is optimal health and quality of life, at each stage of our technological development. Based on my short summary of our natural health dimensions or needs for healthy and fulfilling life, and reflecting the underlying science that supports these ideas, we can describe the material and practical requirements of our model family of four as follows:

       Requirements of a modern family of four

  1. Three-bedroom home of ~100m2 (1100ft2)
  2. One or two cars, or public transportation
  3. Internet access and interface devices
  4. Seven to ten changes of clothes
  5. Combined diet of 6,000-8,000 calories/day
  6. Creative lifelong work for both parents
  7. Schooling for two children
  8. Opportunity for daily exercise
  9. Support from 3+ family members
  10. Network of 8-10 close friends
  11. One or two hobbies per person
  12. Weekly activities & outings
  13. Regular vacation & personal time
  14. Insurance against unemployment
  15. Insurance against death & disability
  16. Insurance against personal liability
  17. Medical care as needed

As indicated before, this reasonably complete and I hope compelling list was fairly easy to create, using Rawles’ original position technique and considering optimal human life today in a principled and science-based way. It is a list that is intended to suggest what an optimal total amount of human wealth might look like, given our current state of industrial development – for our prototypical family, as one generalizes this condition across society, and as one includes the background social investments needed to enable and then perpetuate this life in a sustainable and forward-adapting way.

Have I left out an essential item or two, and is this list all too reflective of our own times and state of society and technology? No doubt in both regards. I assume my list will inspire qualifications by current readers and perhaps one day will raise the eyebrows of future readers. But since the list is intended as an approximate one, it is at least adequate to underscore the central theme from our discussion – that all of the major or perennial material elements of a healthy human life now can be obtained at fairly low relative resource and work levels, given our current level of scientific and technological development, and thus reliably across most or all of the industrialized world today.

My requirements are supportive of the idea that we now have, or soon will have, more than adequate total wealth to create or promote this life for many billions of people, and thus in an important sense, are at or nearing a condition of excess aggregate wealth (since added wealth will have a diminishing impact on our health). And though the costs and specifics of the items listed will vary by locale and over time, a rough calculation of the needed wealth for this lifestyle (which assumes that both parents engage in lifelong skilled work as we have discussed) underscores that this lifestyle can be readily financed by the 1000 hour work-year I have proposed as a new social norm.

Importantly, this intentionally more principled approach to work and wealth is far more in keeping with our natural needs and general health requirements than is presently the dominating standard in the industrialized world today. It envisions and requires only proportioned and enjoyable work throughout our lives, in keeping with needed natural patterns of work and meaningful personal endeavor. The approach is equally more enabling of essential non-work aspects of naturally healthy and fulfilling life than is typical in the industrialized parts of our world as well. It encourages, or at least does not actively and predictably inhibit, the natural growth of rich social networks, stable and reciprocating relationships and communities, and diverse personal experiences and enriching maturation in our lives.

As a generalized model for work and consumption, the approach encourages a more sustainable overall economy and more rational goals for individual and collective uses of our modern wealth, natural resources, and technology. It expressly seeks to optimize wealth creation within a more fundamental goal of promoting health, well-being, and adaptability. And, as we see in industrialized countries exploring shorter work-weeks and more personal and vacation time already, this general work and life pattern does in fact foster important non-work activities needed for fulfilled life, especially when such activities are normalized though ongoing and progressive community health efforts.

Thus, in both theory and emerging practice, this new health-based and wealth-optimizing general model for industrial life encourages and in turn is fostered by social policies that check excessive, health-reducing materialism, inequality, and competition. Runaway wanting and work are forestalled in a new, more natural, and more intelligent human dynamic, one with healthier and more rational new norms for industrial consumption levels and extrinsic goals. In this way, the approach takes direct aim at the chronic disaffection that widespread primitive alpha-cycle conditions create in human society today.

Toward a new economy work-year

Perhaps you have begun to imagine yourself in a new and healthier approach to wealth and work, meeting all of your natural needs in our new modern context, fulfilling to your personal work preferences and interests, and achieving a more satisfying and beneficial life overall – via the growing and health-enabling modern opportunity of lifelong work on a “half-time” basis.

As we have discussed, this new alternative to industrial work and life today involves two important and interrelated changes. One is of course practically moving to a new personal economic equilibrium, where we can reliably ensure that our essential materials needs are met in half the usual time working each year. This change naturally places a new premium on work that is valuable, controllable, and sustainable throughout our lives – work that is financially adequate and that does not gradually exhaust us into retirement and unhealthy social disengagement well before the end of our lives. A second change involves using our new free time in an informed and attentive way, pursuing all of the dimensions of life that prove essential to natural human well-being, progressiveness, and personal fulfillment.

Each of these changes suggests a new awareness of and responsibility for our lives, in and out of work, than is typical today. While our move to a more engaged and health-oriented life can be encouraged by improved social policies, it ultimately can and must be realized through a personal commitment to healthy and progressive life, and to ongoing care with the choices we make amidst the new wealth and complexity of modern life. However, because we generally do have many options for our life, work, and goals today, the steps we personally need to take to explore or adopt this alternative lifestyle for ourselves may seem uncertain at first. Thus, commitment alone is not enough. The move to new health-based approaches to modern life, and to new modern forms of work and goals for wealth in particular, involves a certain amount of work and investment, investigating and learning about the alternatives around us in our lives.

As I have highlighted in our discussion, improved work and life choices can easily be obscured by unnatural and irrational “needs” we feel we must pursue, and it is here where we often find the most important sources of new life learning and even of new personal freedom. In competitive, materialistic, and individualistic settings today, it is common for some of our most heartfelt and influential goals and imperatives to be more a reflection and over-adoption of our competitive culture and its evolved norms, rather than our true requirements and opportunities for optimal health and well-being within or nearby our present circumstances.

With some reflection, especially if you live in a setting of high wealth or highly unequal wealth, you may begin to find many personal behaviors, motivations, and assumptions in your life that are hard to justify when looking at them from the original position and with new health awareness. Often, these dynamics within us serve primarily to maintain or increase our social standing, respond indirectly to unnatural stress and disaffection we are experiencing, or simply have been received from our community – in all cases, they are aspects of our life that are not adequately health-focused and informed by the science.

As you might expect, forms of work that support a more rational and less traditional lifestyle are also quite often, at least for now, more rational and less traditional themselves. But what you might not initially guess that our opportunities for these improved forms of work are now quite numerous and diverse, and growing each year – in our increasingly advanced economy where more and more work is asynchronous, location-flexible, and concerned with the delivery of skilled services, experiences, and transformations. Gone or going is the requirement that work be the repetitive filling of a particular space on an assembly line or in cubical farm for a particular period of time each week and for a set number of hours each year.

For this reason, finding work to enable a 1000 hour work-year now mostly requires the desire for this new and potentially far healthier lifestyle, plus a bit of creativity, planning, and skill-acquisition,  as well as ongoing responsibility for one’s career (and all essential characteristics of a healthy life of engagement and endeavor more broadly). To help you identify potential work options supporting this new workstyle, I would point out that they will generally share several key characteristics:

       Important “half-time” work characteristics

  • Moderately to highly-skilled – often requiring special education and/or experience
  • Project or outcome-based – affording control over the amount and timing of work
  • Enjoyable – tasks and outcomes that are personally rewarding and sustainable
  • Relevant – work that is and can be adapted to remain valuable to others
  • Progressive – involving skills that can be developed and increased over time
  • Viable – provides adequate income, especially by involving valuable skills

With these criteria in mind, you can begin to consider for yourself what new work opportunities (including job-sharing) might be available to you today, and also what more compelling long-term life forms of work might be waiting by using the new ideas we have discussed about how and why you might work. If your immediate options for a 1000 work-year are unclear to you, then I would specifically challenge you first to identify at least five new work options that meet all of the above criteria, and then to investigate and decide which one(s) you will learn more about.

Here are some examples of work opportunities that likely meet all of my criteria, to get your creative juices going:

Examples of new economy work

  • Adult education
  • Artesian trades
  • Client service or advocacy
  • Counseling or therapy
  • Health care services
  • Information technology
  • Equipment services
  • Logistics and transportation
  • Materials technology
  • Recreation services
  • Research & science
  • Video producer
  • Writer

As you begin to examine and consider your range of alternative work options, I would encourage you to learn more about each occupation from existing practitioners, including the skills or training you will need to acquire and the practical issues you will face in the occupation. There is nothing like the perspective of someone in a role you are interested in to give you valuable feedback about its strengths and practical issues.

Ultimately, you may decide that you want to pursue more than one work option, or combine your initial ideas in new, more compelling, and perhaps more economically valuable ways. Both approaches are great ways of taking new control of our work, health, and lives.

Real economics now

Today, maybe you work and consume too much, or too little, or in ways that are not personally or financially rewarding, or sustainable as a general model. Whatever your situation, in our rapidly-changing and opportunity-rich world of advanced technology and unprecedented wealth, your work and your life needn’t stay the same. In any case, it probably will not stay the same over time, given the rapid pace and global scope of social and technological change before us all.

Beginning today, you can take new control over the reasons that you work, and then steadily and progressively change the ways you work over time. Very likely, you can have a health-based life and 1000 hour work-year, if this is what you want and are willing to act toward as a goal. You can enjoy the many health benefits that this new, old, and still too uncommon lifestyle offers, if you are willing to be creative and commit to the work of creating this work and life for yourself. In a similar way, you can help to influence others, your local community, and your nation to enable healthier work patterns and uses of wealth, and help to make health-based wealth and naturally proportioned work the norm – in the interest of both more rational and more compelling life, and of greater happiness and sustainability, for all.

As we conclude this extended but essential discussion about health and quality of life, and the needed nature of work and wealth, in our emerging new human techonomy, I would encourage you to take immediate first steps toward naming the progressive life options and work opportunities that you now have or can reliably create for yourself with a bit of sustained effort.

Soon, and perhaps sooner than you expect, you may find you are rapidly creating a far richer, healthier, and more adaptive “new economy” workstyle and overall life for yourself. And perhaps even a new understanding that we all can have this higher quality life for ourselves, through improved individual choices and wiser mutual support of one another – together creating and enjoying a new, self-sustaining human abundance in our time, with less work, adequate wealth, and far healthier and more compelling life for all.

 

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

 

 

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