Voluntary Simplicity and Work
By Ashley Kiani
Coming home from work in the midst of Toronto rush hour, in the smog heat of July, with a gaining headache, I had a crazy thought. It arose while overhearing a conversation of two middle-aged working women sitting next to me on the subway. It went something like this: “Well, as you know, my son Eric just finished his Master’s degree last spring. He’s spent 6 long years in university, and now has it in his silly head to start an eco-tourism camp up north. After all that money we invested! Can you believe it?” To which the other replied, horrified, “But he can’t seriously do that for a living!”
At this point I had my crazy thought – WHY not? Why couldn’t he make that a career? Albeit unconventional, low paying, a struggle – in the end, rewarding. Why shouldn’t he use his talents to the full extent and for such a notable goal? E.F. Schumacher put it well when he outlined the 3 purposes of work:
- To provide necessary and useful goods and services.
- To enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts [talents].
- To do so in service and in co-operation with others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity.
Understood together, these points mean that we should use our gifts for and with others to produce necessary products. Note the use of the word “necessary”. To live in a sustainable world (it is currently not one), we must curb our wants to simply fit our needs. “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”, said Gandhi. Global leaders generally agree that the earth as a whole will not survive much longer if we continue our current trends of mass resource and material consumption. It is essential that we make career changes to fit these warnings not only for ourselves, but for the world as a whole. People who practise voluntary simplicity consciously reduce their desire for purchased services or goods, and the need to sell their time for money (i.e. by constantly working). Therefore they do many things for themselves that would otherwise be bought, such as cooking or repairs. Quite a few Westerners have successfully applied this philosophy to their everyday life, allowing them to live on a low income of a few thousand dollars a year, and usually with one breadwinner per family. Such a lifestyle allows working for organizations that would previously not have been an option, like non-profit or volunteering jobs. Here is a testimony of such an employee:
“I am debt free. I left my stressed filled job, cut back and want to do more reducing. It is hard for me with a 10 year old that enjoys the material things in life and they seem to motivate him. Do I have the right to take that away from him? My wife works 30 hours a week and we live off of that income. What is hard is that I’ve changed and I want to express it but I feel that I am half way in between. I realize the importance of money and want it but at the same time deplore how I have to get it.”
The personal moral issue here is whether to take a job to fulfill your own material desires (e.g. another S.U.V., fashionable clothes, private schools) in a high paying, probably high stress, low satisfaction job, or the opposite – to forego financial compensation for the sake of high personal satisfaction in a lower stress job. By self-reflecting and making this choice, doing what you want becomes more important than having. Going to work every morning where you know you will make a difference in your small world is incomparable to the empty feeling of having no vacation time, stress-related illnesses, or having thousands saved up in the bank but being too busy to spend it. It is up to each of us to make this decision when we choose a career.
The following illustrates the point:
Chronic stress, dissatisfaction at work –> re-assess priorities –> find ways to spend less, therefore earn less –> cut back work hours, or change jobs = work satisfaction
While it is often necessary to work to survive, this does not mean we must compromise our inborn skills or willingness to make a positive difference. I strongly believe we are responsible not only as career counsellors but as individuals who care for the world and its billions of inhabitants, to guide our clients into making this ethical choice. In this profession, this is the best we can hope to achieve for others. The road of self-discovery is not easy for most people, which is why they end up in career centres. One example of an exercise is to list 10 things that occupy most of your day, and compare it to another list of 10 activities that you would rather be accomplishing.
Other suggestions for dissatisfied and overworked employees include working fewer hours, delegating work to co-workers, job sharing, telecommuting, etc. It’s up to them to take action on the results of their reflections, but results follow passion. The most important point is to not mistake your job for your life, but for your job to be a positive expression of your life. We must carefully balance our career and home life – it should be that they are a continuous flowing of each other, in and out of daily cycle. “Work” becomes simply a series of activities to achieve higher goals set by the individual –the most meaningful and valuable thing they can do with their career.
An Overview of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, Kim Edwards, The Dollar Stretcher, 1998. Available on-line at: www.stretcher.com/stories/960415c.htm
Good Work, E. F. Schumacher & Peter N. Gillingham, Harper & Row. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1979.
Simplicity Lessons: A 12-Step Guide to Living Simply, Linda Breen Pierce, Gallagher Press, 2003.
Work 2.0: Rewriting the Contract, Bill Jensen, Perseus Books, 2002.
Ashley Kiani has a background in psychology and office administration, and would like to pursue a career in the non-profit career counselling and education fields. She graduated from York University with Honours degree in Psychology and is looking forward to taking her Master’s of Education. Ashley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org