A woman quits her corporate job and supports herself by selling environmentally friendly screen-printed clothes on Etsy. An unemployed newspaper photographer finds new sources of income renting out his house through Airbnb and driving for Lyft. Residents of a city buy and sell French lessons and dog-walking services at a time bank, using a local currency that values each participant’s time equally. You might click on stories like these and spend a minute daydreaming about a simpler life—or, depending on your temperament, fuming about ridiculous hipsters. But, to Juliet Schor, this is stuff that could lead to a revolutionary change in all our lives.
If you don’t know Schor, rest assured, she is neither a hemp enthusiast looking forward to the next Phish show nor a venture capitalist hyping a billion-dollar cat-sitter-finding app. She’s a bestselling author, the founder of several significant institutions of the modern American left, and an economics Ph.D. who spent 17 years in Harvard—eleven in the econ department—before becoming a sociologist at Boston College.
To hear Schor tell it, utopian thinking seems a sensible response to a modern culture of work and consumption, a culture that leaves us on a trajectory toward a literal dystopia.
Schor’s books—starting with 1992’s The Overworked American and continuing through Plenitude in 2010—have found an audience among readers interested in thinking critically about the environmental and the human costs of the work-spend cycle. In a review for Contemporary Sociology, the University of Minnesota’s Rachel Schurman described Plenitude as “a clarion call to abandon our self-destructive consumption practices and to create a new economy that values, nurtures, and produces a very different sort of wealth.”
Schor summed up much of her vision in a short 2001 paper for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. She begins by outlining two nightmarish realities: first, the existential threat posed by climate change (and other environmental catastrophes), and, second, the desperate poverty billions of people in less-developed countries face. Then, she links in a topic we’re much more comfortable with: the way many Americans stress about work, struggle to find time for friends and family, and still feel unable to get ahead. Schor’s startlingly optimistic message is that this is all connected. The political and cultural changes that would let us spend less time working and spending money are the same ones that promote sustainability and global economic equality.
I met Schor in December at her bookshelf-lined Boston College office. Looking every bit the public intellectual in bold cat-eye glasses, and pausing occasionally to choose a precise word, she explained that she has spent the past four years studying the “sharing,” or peer-to-peer, economy. The project grew out of a notion she formulated in Plenitude—back before Uber was everywhere—that households are moving toward becoming little economic production centers, much like they were before the Industrial Revolution. With the help of technologies like 3D printing and permaculture farming, she wrote, people can take care of many of their needs themselves or trade with others outside the global economy.
Schor is by no means a cheerleader for the Airbnbs and TaskRabbits of the world, or even for non-corporate corners of the peer-to-peer economy like “maker” spaces and food swaps. She and her team of graduate students are studying the ways these institutions sometimes exploit their participants or cause unintended consequences in local job markets. Still, Schor thinks the sharing economy is becoming a significant part of the country’s economic life, with the potential for valuable—and radical—change.
“I see this as a direction that gives people a tremendous amount of freedom and authority because it moves people out of what we used to call being wage slaves—so, basically, subjected to authority and hierarchy in the workplace—to a life where they are not financially dependent on a boss,” Schor says. “So they can organize their lives as they like, they can work more or less as they like.”
Seeing the potential for radical change in how people live came naturally to Schor. Her parents were communists at a time when that was a very inconvenient thing to be in America. She told me her father was a doctor, but the FBI got him fired from his job in New York during the last year of his surgical residency. He moved to southwestern Pennsylvania and helped the mineworkers’ union start a health clinic.
Growing up in the small town of California, Pennsylvania, Schor got involved with the United Farm Workers’ boycott movement at age 13. Her parents tried to keep her away from the more radical fringes of the left, but it was the 1960s, and soon Schor was organizing an antiwar group at her old-fashioned private girls’ school and traveling to Harvard for a Students for a Democratic Society meeting.
As a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s, Schor helped found both the Center for Popular Economics, which provides workshops to help social justice activists understand economic issues, and South End Press, which published books by leftist intellectuals including Arundhati Roy, bell hooks, and Noam Chomsky before closing in 2014.
When she joined the Harvard economics department in 1984, Schor was part of a small group of faculty and students challenging orthodox economic thinking. As the Reagan years went on, the discipline shifted sharply to the right. As the notion that markets are the answer to every problem became dominant in the field, scholars like Schor became marginalized.
“You end up with those ‘neoliberal’ conclusions, like ‘the government should always stay out,’” Schor said—a notion that she found both incorrect and also kind of boring. “You know the answer to everything before you begin,” she said. “I mean, that’s how the model works. So—not so interesting.” In 2001, Schor moved to Boston College, and to sociology.
These days, after the spectacular 2008 market crash and subsequent Great Recession, mainstream economics is again moving away from hard-right, free-market orthodoxy. Still, for anyone who casually follows economic news, Schor’s writing can be startling.
Take growth. Schor writes in Plenitude that the standard measure of national economies, gross domestic product, is distorted to the point of worthlessness. Not only does it ignore the massive costs of pollution and the destruction of natural resources, but it also assigns no value to the huge amount of work done outside the labor market. (Brew your own coffee instead of going to Starbucks, and you’ve just made a tiny attack on GDP growth.) Even if those measurement issues were solved, Schor argues that there’s just no way to combine perpetual growth with environmental sustainability.
Her conclusion is a shocking one, at least to an American audience: Economic growth in countries like the U.S. must taper down to zero. She told me she knows how strange that might sound. But she said there’s really nothing in mainstream economic theory that demands that economies grow.
“Virtually all economists think productivity growth is a good thing—getting more output for every given unit of labor input,” she said. “But there’s nothing in their theory that says people should take that growth as more stuff rather than more leisure.”
Through the first half of the 20th century, the notion of perpetual growth wasn’t a big part of mainstream policy conversation. John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of those decades, predicted a near future in which everyone’s basic needs would be taken care of, people would enjoy an enormous expansion of leisure time, and further growth would be unnecessary.
“The love of money as a possession… will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of the semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease,” he wrote. But, Schor told me, only a decade later, in the 1940s, experts began promoting perpetual growth as a method for quelling class conflict. “A big part of what happens with that kind of post-World War II growth society is that growth becomes the mechanism for solving lots of other problems—maldistribution and poverty and so forth—instead of solving them in another way, which you could,” she said.
One big problem with that idea is that, as much empirical research has demonstrated, just getting richer doesn’t usually make people much happier—particularly in wealthy countries like the U.S. Instead, it’s where you stand economically relative to others that has the biggest effect on well-being. That makes equality a much more important goal than growth. Schor’s vision of a different way to address human well-being starts with something she has written about for decades: reducing the hours people spend at their jobs.
“That opens up so many possibilities for people,” she said. “It gives you a different kind of family life. It allows you to transform your gendered division of labor, where you could have both men and women working short hours in the market, sharing household production, for example.”
Already, she says, plenty of people are downshifting: cutting their hours at work, taking camping trips and making food from scratch instead of spending lots of money on vacations and restaurants, and maybe developing a sideline business brewing beer or making jewelry.
Schor knows how easy it is to scoff at highly educated young people who want to escape the corporate rat race to raise chickens or make pickles. She’s seen Portlandia, too. But she also thinks the trend is a real sign of changing cultural values. In a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Culture in 2014, she and members of her graduate-student team argued that environmentally minded “conscious consumption” and an interest in all things local and handmade are becoming markers of high status.
This doesn’t mean Schor thinks individual choices about consumption are an answer to the massive problems of inequality and climate change. The large-scale changes she envisions would take massive government action: policies that reduce standard working hours and spread jobs among more people, universal health care to free people from dependence on the employer-based insurance system, a carbon tax that makes companies incorporate the costs of emissions into their accounting.
Schor said it worries her that many idealistic young people seem to be staying away from conventional political activity like pushing for environmentally friendly legislation. But she also understands it. “I think we’re in a period of time when it’s harder for people to believe in their efficacy because you have a captured government to a much larger extent than in the past,” she said. But she said people who have internalized the idea that environmental goals are important in their own lives are at least more likely to accept larger changes.
“You’re not going to get to a low-carbon economy because people change their lifestyles,” Schor said. “But it’s a part of how that change can be accepted across a broad part of the population, rather than people being upset about the major kind of change that will happen if you had a decently sized carbon tax for example.” Schor has walked the walk when it comes to downshifting. The Overworked American came out around the same time she had her first baby, and she and her husband, historian Prasannan Parthasarathi, both cut back their working hours while their two children were small. “I spent a lot of time with my children as they were growing up,” she said.
These days she and her team are churning out a steady stream of papers based on their research on the sharing economy. She also co-chairs the board of the Center for a New American Dream, a sustainability group she cofounded, writes frequently for popular media, and speaks to audiences all over the world (often via teleconferencing to reduce her carbon footprint). But she said she has realized her own economics of productivity, and she doesn’t let her work control her life.
“I don’t spend all my time working,” she said. “No. Definitely not. You get more efficient at things. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”