Thursday, October 14, 2010

Purely a Consumer, and Nothing More

Here's my question: Is it okay to live life purely as a consumer of things, and not give anything back to society in return?

We instinctively look down upon the very idea of someone leading "a life of leisure." Why is this? I have been grappling with this question for months, and it just doesn’t go away.

Let's first back up and ask why are people working so hard at their jobs? So that they can provide themselves (and their family) a comfortable life, one that they can all enjoy.

But if someone had the choice to quit working, and didn't need to earn anymore, and was reasonably sure that they could lead their life enjoying the things that they cared about, should they take that opportunity?

Applying this choice to myself, it seems that I can argue for both sides.

I can readily see how selfish this life of leisure seems. Consuming without ever giving back to society. All those years of education, all of society's "investment" in me, wasted.

I have mentioned in this blog in the past my guilt over "not doing good to society." Interestingly, I never had any of this guilt when I was working a full time job. Since I was in middle management, I was decently compensated and sure, I paid a lot more in taxes. The extent of my 'contribution' was that I was managing (or mentoring) a few technically capable people, pushing them to do their best. But that was it. I wasn't really helping society in any big way, and yet nobody called me selfish.

But look at the other side, the argument for being a consumer of things that give me joy. People have spent their lives creating things that I enjoy. Books and movies (especially documentaries and foreign films) that I can never get enough of. Add to that innumerable thought-provoking web articles, video clips, and TED talks. Then there are the free online courses in iTunesU – lectures by the very best teachers in the world. Any decent-sized public library in the Chicago area has enough non-fiction DVD's to keep me watching for months. Lots of places to travel to, and new and interesting food to be sampled. In short, to consume in every sense of the word the things that I really like. It would be my way of respecting all the people who created these things.

Let's say (just for argument's sake) that someone had enough saved up to consume these things for the rest of their life. Should we question their choice of becoming purely a consumer of the things that give them joy?


Franklin said...

Ram my background is very similar to yours. I am about the same age, worked in finance, enjoyed my job and was very good at it but thought if I did it until I was sixty I would be missing something, so I accumulated an investment fund where I could live off the income and stopped working at 40.

In terms of contributing to society I do not have any feelings of guilt or really even think about this on a day to day basis. I think this is based on:

- Least significantly, during the 25 years I worked (if I include my work in high school and university) I probably worked on average 60 or more hours a week, so the time I worked is probably closer to 35 or 40 years if measured in normal work weeks.

-More significantly, this period of not having a traditional job may be only be a transitional phase where I spend timing developing myself (like you I am doing a lot of reading and also studying certain topics of interest) and go on to something more useful to society than I was before (which may take the form of a traditional job or may take some other form). I had a similar period, when during my last few years of university I did not work, and during this time effectively converted myself from a waiter (my job in university) to a financial professional with a Fortune 500 firm.

-Lastly, many of the thinkers and artists who have contributed to society over the last several thousand years did not have jobs but have arguably contributed much more to society than the vast majority of people today with jobs will ever contribute. Thus having a traditional job is not a prerequisite to contributing to society.

In short I do not feel any guilt and instead I enjoy pursuing my interest and which in turn develop me much more than spending more time at my job would and ultimately make more useful to society.

Ram said...


Thanks for sharing your background and thoughts.
1. Very happy to learn that you made your personal investment fund work, and got out when you wanted to.

2. I like all three of the points you make - ie. you have "paid your dues" when you worked; that it doesn't have to be via traditional jobs; and about artists and thinkers.

3. I too am 'developing' myself, but not sure for what. Since I enjoy the process of self-development so much, I am going along for the ride. My point is that even if I didn't end up doing anything good for society, it would perhaps be okay.

I really liked the sober and logical way in which you laid out your points. So the question is: Franklin, where is your blog? I for one would read it.


Retirementau said...

Many of the retirement calculators on the Internet do not fit the plan of many Boomers and that is to continue to work after retirement. Income from a retirement job can have a very positive impact on your retirement finances.

LoveBeingRetired said...

I think it depends on the person and their situation as far as when ans if they leave the working world. What is a concern is when people focus all of their efforts - often at the expense of family and friends - to build a retirement nest egg that is MORE than what they need to be happy. Do you really need 3X as much to be happier? And will you be 3X happier for the extra effort? Better to determine what is a realistic number, work toward that, and when you get there, retire! Take some time to do what you want to do not that you can. If work is what you want to do, so be it. But don't work yourself to death just to have more than you will ever need in your lifetime.

Retired Syd said...

I have never understood the argument that it is less selfish to work than not to. I worked full-time for money before I retired. That seems pretty selfish to me. If I "gave anything to society" I don't know what it was, I was really selling something to society not "contributing" (i.e giving).

Now I have a little part-time gig in retirement and I can safely say it is purely for selfish reasons that I do it: 1) I love it, 2) it pays me nice money, and 3) I receive appreciation on top of the money. All three seem very selfish to me. Not mention, since I don't actually need the money, isn't it more selfish to do this job when someone that actually might need a job could be displaced?

Ram said...


Yes, I do see your point. This is one topic about which I am really conflicted, which is why it keeps popping up.

However, this feeling of 'guilt' that I experience is very real. I cannot shrug off the feeling that I should be working for others' betterment, in some small way. Still figuring what that is, and how I should go about it.

As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and being a straight-shooter.