Category Archives: But what can I do?

Stop buying crap you don’t need now and retire 4 years earlier!

In this post I continue my statistical critique of the ordinary life of the everyday worker-consumer. This is done through comparing a hypothetical 35 year old who earns the median salary and has average expenditure to a hypothetical construction I call the frugal-consumer who spends as little as possible without completely cutting themselves off from society. The expenditure levels of the former effectively tie them into working for a further 33 years until the current projected standard retirement age of 67-8, while the later, assuming they maintain their frugal levels of consumption, will be able to retire when they are 52-3, or 14 years earlier, or in half as much time as the average-consumer on the average wage.

Here I consider spending on Consumer Frivolities (see previous posts for other categories of expenditure).

The average-consumer spends £216.71 a month on what I call consumer frivolities, which includes unnecessary expenditure on restaurants and hotels (£73.15), furniture and furnishings (£51.48), ‘miscellaneous goods’ (£69.33), which in the ONS family spending survey mainly consists of beauty products and jewellery, and finally recreation and culture (£111.06), which for most people means the cost of purchasing audio-visual equipment and subscriptions to various services, and also includes the cost of entrance to things such as cinemas, concerts and festivals.

Over the course of one year this amounts to £3,933 and maintaining this for another 33 years will cost £129, 798,  which represents 6.0 years working earning the median salary.

So what does the average person get for this £129, 798, or 6 years of toil? Most people would say it’s hard to generalise, because the consumer gets what ever they want for the money they’ve got, assuming the market can provide it. Some people will choose a house full of antiques, others a house full of gadgets, and stilll others closets full of clothes and  boxes full of jewellery. Increasingly likely, though is that money will be spent not on stuff, but on experiences, such as playing the dating game, or weekends away and longer holidays, supplemented by such products as fake tan and sun cream to prevent an actual sun tan.

To many people, such consumerist experiences are the very purpose of life: the products we buy define us, mark us out, and the events we purchase play a crucial part in our weekly, monthly and yearly life-course – they are things we look forward to, and back on, the events which help to maintain and define our relationships with our friends and family and give us something to talk about at work, other than work.

I’ve managed to resist the urge to be utterly cynical about the role which consumption plays in most people’s lives, because just recently I’ve come to perceive most ordinary consumption as tragic, and in this context cynicism seems innapropriate. Those people  who define themselves through their stuff become tied to it (and possibly require a bigger house in which to stuff their stuff), and for those who define themselves through their experiences, it seems to me that the way in which many people consume such events involves them not really being present because they’re too concerned with acting for the sake of sharing the experience via social media, and for me if you’re not actually present, then you’re not really even alive.

Ultimately such unnecessary consumption costs the average-consumer on the median salary 6 years of their working life. In contrast to this the frugal-consumer rejects the trivial, shallow and short-lived fake-joys of consumerism and instead engages in meaningful, productive and either free or very cheap activities when not working.

The frugal-consumer is not, however, an anti-consumer, and maintains an expenditure level on ‘consumer frivoloties’ which allow them to avoid being completely cut off from ordinary society. This is mainly because I could not, hand on heart, say that I am ever likely to cut out consuming frivoloties all together myself, cut down radically yes, cutting out altogether, highly unlikely.

The frugal-consumer spends just £60 a month on such frivolities, allowing for £20 a month on restaurants and hotels (so basically no hotel stays and one trip to a restaurant a month), £20 a month on furniture and furnishings, given that this category includes spending on basic household items such as hoovers, a further £20 for ‘miscellaneous goods’ because everyone needs a little something extra, and a whopping £30 a month for recreation and culture. This amounts to an annual expenditure of £1080 a year, a total of £35 640 over 33 years, representing a saving of £94 158 or 4.33 working years of working at the median salary compared to the average-consumer.

NB If this looks unrealistic, or even unbearable, something like the bottom fifth of the U.K.  in terms of income live such a life out of necessity rather than as part of an early-retirement strategy, so it is possible.


Live without a car and retire five years earlier

This is a redraft of a previous post (with additions towards the end)

Giving up the car is the single most significant thing the average person could do to save themselves money and achieve early retirement. I personally refer to cars as money sinks, at least when I fancy a change from my preferred label for them which is ‘pollution and death machines’.

This was one of the unexpected findings from my statistical analysis of average consumption patterns (E R E for infographsBLOGv3) is that an irrational addiction to the motorcar is the single most significant  factor which locks the individual into having to work until they are 68. Giving up the car and moving to within cycling (preferably walking) distance of work and most other places you want to go is the single most significant thing you can do to save money and make early retirement possible.

The average-consumer’s crazy car habit.

According to the National Travel Survey 2012, the average distance travelled per person  in 2012 was 6,691 miles, with 78% of these miles being travelled by car, which means roughly 5000 of these miles were travelled by car. If we assume that someone makes an economically rational choice and purchases a relatively cheap car, then using the AA’s Motoring Costs Survey 2014, the overall average standing costs of the cheapest category of car (up to £13K in this survey) stood at £1913, with a running cost per mile of £18.56. If we factor all of this together, the average cost of running a cheapish, and thus probably small car in 2014 was £2841. (See endnotes 13-14)

This works out at £277.77 a month or £3333.20 a year, which rounds up to a staggering £110 000 over 33 years, equivalent to 5.2 years worth of earnings on the median salary.

I was first alerted to the incredible economic inefficiency of the motor car by Andre Gorz’s excellent 1973 essay ‘The Social Ideology of the Motorcar’. Following Ivan Illich, Gorz made the point that the average American spent four hours a day devoted to their car, either sitting in it (moving or not-moving), or working to pay for the various services associated with driving. He calculated that if you added up all of these hours and divide by the average distance travelled by car, the average American travelled at an average speed of 3.5 miles an hour, or the same as walking pace, but thousands of dollars worse off and probably a lot more stressed as a result.

In Britain today, the statistics aren’t quite as bad as this. If we take the approximate average distance travelled of 5000 miles a year, and divide by the average speed of 24.6 mph, this makes a total of 203. 25 hours spent driving. If we then add to this the 212 hours it would take you to pay for one year’s worth of motoring costs, the total amount of hours we get is 415.25, which when divided by 5000 miles gives us an average speed of 12 mph.

Given that this is comparable with the speed of a bicycle, and that I am being quite generous in my calculations (the bigger your car, which won’t go any faster in all that traffic, the more local your journeys, the more of them are in peak hours, and the lower your wage, then the more time inefficient the car becomes), all in all I’d say the car is, for your typical person, a total waste of money and of 5.2 years of a precious human life.

It is possible to give up the car!

Although such experiments are not widely publicised, if you type in ‘how to live without a car’ into Google, the search returns a number of case studies of people who report positively on their experience of going car free.
The first search return (all accessed Summer 2014) outlines the case of an individual who went for an entire year in 2013 without even sitting in a car, while traveling around much of the country, moving house and even attending a wedding by a combination of bike and public transport. At the end of the experience she reports a £2270 saving compared to doing the same activities with a car, which is broadly in line with my own savings projections.

The second return, written by a motoring journalist, is somewhat less optimistic, but the author did note a saving over two just two weeks of £106, and her arguments for having a car included socialising, and needing to get to a job interview, all while living in a rural area.

After a third return in which an individual reports managing to hold down a decorating job while being on a bike, the fourth return outlines the story of a family in Edinburgh who have gone car free, albeit with the use of a car pool on occasion, saving about £1200 a year.

All in all I was quite surprised by the positive tones of all of these responses, but it does seem that in order to give up the car then you need to make sure of the following – (a) live in a region with decent public transport links, (b) be prepared to cut down on your social life, (c) break the norm, be rational and save yourself £100k over 33 years – Yes, that’s £100 000!

What is also important is changing your attitude towards transport – Instead of thinking you and your life are so important that you need a car because you must be able to get to so many places as quickly as possible, take a step back and slow down, realise that you don’t need to do so much at such a pace and enjoy the journeys you take – walking and cycling are wonderful ways to travel if you approach them in the right way, and if you limit your bus or train use to a few times a month and are well-organised with your timings, even this can be pleasurable.

You’ve probably heard it before, and it might be something of a pseudo-spiritual cliché – but the journey is as important as the destination. Why on earth anyone would want to pay £100K to avoid being reminded of this everyday is beyond me.

Related Posts 

Five ways to spend less than £263K on housing over the next 25 years

If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

Retirement Cover5

Also available on Amazon, but for £1.99 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!



The National Travel Survey

AA’s car costs

Your mortgage or your life?

Following on from my realisation that the average income earner could retire at 52, I’ve started to analyse the relative importance of various categories of expenditure in preventing early retirement. Here, I look at housing.

Given that housing represents the single largest life time expenditure item for most people in the U.K., getting your housing strategy correct is vitally important for early retirement. As far as I’m concerned, it is simply irrational to rent in the long term, so, if you can afford it, buying really is the only option. However, the average-consumer goes about this in the wrong way – i.e. by spreading their mortgage repayments over a relatively long, 25 year term and dragging the mortgage out even longer because of trading up to a larger property.

According to this is money, a typical first-time buyer who buys a £151,000 home with a £121,000 repayment mortgage over 25 years will pay back £212, 000, calculated at 5% interest. In my calculations I’ve been a little more optimistic, to reflect some of the better interest rates out there at the moment, and assumed an average life-time interest rate of 4%, so borrowing the same amount  (£121 000) at 4% over 25 years means paying back a total of £191,600, at £638 a month or £7664 a year, which is equivalent to 9 years worth of earnings on the median-salary. Of these repayments, interest accounts for £191, 600 – £121, 000 = £70, 000, which in itself is equivalent to almost 3 years of work earning the median salary. (See endnotes 8-12)

In my frugal-consumer model (Spread sheet ) the same figure is paid back over 11 years, which means paying back a total of £149, 764, at £1135 a month or £13, 620 a year,  equivalent to 7 years worth of earnings on the median salary. Compared to the average individual, the frugal-consumer saves themselves over £40, 000 or the equivalent of nearly 2 years worth of work earning the median salary.

The above scenario is actually extremely generous in its comparison – In the sense that while my 11 year pay-back model is, I think, reasonably achievable for the average income earner, my ‘average’ consumer model is in fact not realistic – If a couple chooses to ‘trade up’ to a house then their costs of housing almost double.

The Average house price is currently £264K – And if we apply the same payback-ratios as above, then a  4% mortgage over 25 years gives a total payback amount of £385K (5% gives  £424K).

(NB – Many people will pay back more than this – 30 years is rapidly becoming the norm for mortgage repayment periods – In 2012, the number of mortgages with more than 30 years on the term had risen to 27.8%, up from less than 3% ten years earlier, and the longer the mortgage term, the greater the interest!

So let’s just pause…. assuming that you stay in a one or two bed flat for the rest of your life and stick to the standard mortgage term, then that will cost you £250K over the course of your lifetime, but if you want a family-home, you are looking at something in the region of £400K. Looked at in starker terms, if we take the median salary, these figures represent approximately 12 and 20 years of work respectively. If you compare the later of these to my frugal-consumer model, you lose 9 additional years working to pay for property.

To make an even starker comparison, there are several people in the UK who have built their own houses for 10 times less than these figures both in terms of money and time, it becomes clear that most of the above years are basically years spent making someone else rich – A combination of the land owner, property developer, previous owner and/ or mortgage-lender – And I think anyone who is either considering getting on the property ladder or who is currently on it needs to urgently consider some of the available, cheaper, alternatives to housing.

Or look at it this way – If you walked in to work tomorrow and your boss offered you a year, or two, or ten off on full pay, that’d be pretty nice, wouldn’t it? Or if you won £100K on the lottery, that’d be at least Facebookable. These are the types of figures radical housing alternatives can save you…..And these are the figures you throw away by being a mortgage slave.

NB – The point of this post isn’t necessarily to criticise the injustice of a system based on debt, the aim is simply to raise awareness of the extreme savings that can be made in terms of your money and your life if you just pay that damn mortgage down as quickly as possible.


Related Posts

1. How the Average Income Earner could retire at 52

The freedoms of living without money

I think learning to live with less money is a crucial life-skill that pertains to greater freedom, but here are two examples of people who have managed to live without money altogether…

Based in the UK and author of the Moneyless Manifesto, Mark Boyle gave up money for more than 2 years in November 2008. Having studied economics for six years he found himself looking around for a ‘big cause’ to devote his life to, he concluded that the one thing that disconnects us from nature more than anything else is money. Boyle points out that while we tend to associate money with independence, in fact it just makes us dependent on people far away from us, and less likely to look to our local communities for our sustenance. It is also money that is the root disconnect which facilitates the type of global production processes which are associated with social and ecological injustice. In the video below he makes the point that he couldn’t really proselytize about such things unless he actually lived them, and hence the moneyless experiment was born.

He originally set out to do this for one year, but after that year started to question how he could return to a money based economy, so he carried on.

A second example from the US is Daniel Suelo who occasionally updates the Moneyless World Blog has been money free since the year 2000 – Seriously, the video below is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever watched. He says that he’d thought about going money free ever since he was a child, when he used to question why his Christian household didn’t really keep to the ideals of Jesus. He then went on the study other religions and realised that what they had in common was that they all stressed the importance of living a ‘giving’ life based on compassion, rather than one in which you do something now for future gain, which is precisely the typical lifestyle associated with our money-based economy. There’s also a major ecological thread running through his philosophy – he lives a ‘natural life’ rather than an ‘accounted’ life, and if you want an interesting perspective on death, this video is a must watch. (Also, I may have this completely wrong, but Suelo is what I imagine the Zen Masters of the Tang to have been like.)

The man who quit money from Sacred Resonance on Vimeo.


The difference between the two is that Suelo seems to be living without money for spiritual reasons, part of which involves living spontaneously, and connecting with nature, and although networked and now joined by similar people, he seems to be more of a lone agent amidst other lone agents, whereas for Boyle his experiment is much more political, and he’s well-embedded in the Transition Movement and is currently involved in in establishing Streetbank, a nation wide money-free skills and stuff sharing site. Mark Boyle’s book also has some interesting criticisms of the money economy, whereas Suelo seems much more content just living a money free life, relatively disconnected, stating that the problems with the money-economy are so obvious they don’t really need to be criticised.

Such radical lifestyles serve as a reminder of not only how central money is to our present social system, but just how colonised the average mind is by the very idea of money.

 You might like to ask yourself the following questions

  1. What do you need money for?

  2. Do the benefits of consuming the things you purchase actually outweigh the cost (working) of getting that money?

  3. Could you get the things you want by other means other than money?

  4. Could you let go of the the desire for the things you want and live with much less money, or without money altogether?

  5. Why is it that I struggle so much giving up take-out Cappuccinos?

OK, so the last one’s personal….! 

How the median income earner could retire at 52

If you’d like a fuller version of what’s below, please do buy my latest book

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of the Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

extreme early retirement

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!


Over the summer I worked out that a 35 year old earning the median salary could potentially retire at 52, if they just stop buying crap they don’t need now. In contrast, the expenditure levels of the average worker-consumer effectively tie them into working until the current standard retirement age of 68.

This post is simultaneously a critique of the ordinary worker-consumer and of the Extreme-Early-Retirement model, which I don’t think can be applied in its fullest sense to an average person in the U.K. (Although if someone wants to modify my stats using different investment models to see if the retirement date could be brought forward, I’d be interested!).

In this blog post I compare two hypothetical 35 year old individuals (4) who both earn the median UK salary. One individual has average consumption and expenditure while the other has in mind the goal of retiring as early as possible and so is much more frugal, without completely having cut themselves off from society.

As testimony to my lack of Open Office Calculator and Inkscape skills, this is represented below:

Ret InfoTo make reading the above more meaningful, you should refer to this spread sheet throughout – Comparing 33 years of expenditure

For the sake of making an easy comparison, I’ve used expenditure figures based on one person living alone for the remainder of their life, and imagined that they have just bought their first property at the age of 35. The reason for selecting a 35 year old is because this is the age by which most people are settled into a stable career, and this is also the age by which most people are at least starting to think about retirement, if not yet looking forward to it in the near future. It also happens to be the age at which today’s typical graduate student can reasonably have expected to have paid off their student debts and have some kind of savings towards their first property. Although the figures in each expenditure category will vary considerably depending on variables such as age, or household make up, the levels of expenditure are generally not going to be that far away from how the majority of people spend their money for much of their lives, and thus most people should at least recognise something of their own and their friends’ expenditure habits in these figures.

However, to satisfy those who just can’t get over the problems of using averages when variables which will differ widely, I’ve included a link (4) to the spread sheet where I’ve done my calculations so you can add in your own expenditure and income levels in order to personalise these calculations for yourself, or you can even modify at a deeper level to add in things such as inflationary effects, investment returns and changes in circumstance over time.

The purpose of this exercise is to put in the starkest terms possible how many years and months (expressed in decimal terms) of one average human life one individual would have to spend working to buy certain things for the remainder of one’s normal working adult human life. In those stark terms – The expenditure levels of the average-consumer effectively lock them into working until the current standard retirement age of 67-8, while the frugal-consumer, assuming they maintain their frugal levels of consumption, will be able to retire when they are 51, or 14 years earlier, or in half as much time as the average consumer on the average wage.

Executive summary – A comparison of the 33 expenditure patterns of an average-consumer compared to a hypothetical frugal-consumer.

As far as I see it, there are three main factors which work together to keep the average 35 year old worker-consumer locked into the need to work for 33 years until they are 67-8. In terms of overall expenditure, the single most significant item is the 25 year mortgage with massive interest payments (costs 9 years). However, this lock in occurs primarily because the high cost of car ownership (costs 5 years), and what I can only characterise as fragmented expenditure on a range of unnecessary consumer frivolities (costs 4 years), which together means that a person earning the average median salary has no choice other than to drag the mortgage out over a 25 year period, and accept the attendant massive interest costs.

In contrast, what I call the frugal-consumer chooses to get rid of the car and buys a bike (saving 4 years), radically reduces consumption of frivolities (saving 2.3 years), and in addition makes some relatively marginal savings on necessities (saving 1.5 years) such as food and utilities. Taken together, these changes in lifestyle allow for an 11 year mortgage repayment term and much lower interest payments as a result (saving 2 years). All of this, factored with the lower cost of living, mean that this individual could potentially accrue enough savings over 16 to years to pay for 33 years worth of frugal consumption, allowing for an early retirement age of 52.

In future blog posts, I’ll compare expenditures across four categories – housing, transport (focusing on the car), consumer frivolities and things which may be reasonably regarded as necessities.

If you can’t wait, you can always buy my book – ‘Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner‘.


Boring but important – A few (selected) notes on data sources and expenditure categories and statistics

Categories of Expenditure In my analysis below I have four main expenditure categories, mainly drawn from The Office for National Statistics’ Family Expenditure Survey (5) -Mortgage repayments -Transport costs -Necessities – food, utilities, council tax, clothes, pensions contribution, communication, maintenance of dwelling, health -Consumer frivolities – recreation and culture, restaurants and hotels, ‘miscellaneous’, household goods and services, alcohol and tobacco and education.

To get my figures for individual expenditure based on one individual living along I’ve mainly used the data from the ONS’ family spending survey and divided by the average household size (2.4 people) where it makes sense to do this (dividing makes sense for clothes, but not for council tax). Because the figures are mostly weekly, I’ve multiplied by 52 to get the annual figures and then 33 to get the 33 year overall expenditure to the normal retirement age. I’ve calculated how many years working it would take the average consumer to pay for one category of expenditure earning the median net salary by  dividing the total cost of 33 years worth of expenditure by this figure (£21, 240). Where housing costs are concerned, I’ve used the figures for the cost of repaying the average mortgage which is £121 000 according to this is money (6).  Here, for the average-consumer repayment is over a 25 year term, while for the frugal-consumer, the repayment period is over an 11 year term.

Median Income

According to the UK Annual Survey of hours and earnings (7) median, full-time gross weekly earnings stands at £517.00 per week, which amounts to (*52) a median gross annual salary of £26884, which equates to a take home annual salary of £21, 240, or a monthly salary of £1770 after income tax and national insurance are taken out (£408/ week for those who like to work in weeks).

Potential problems with my modelling

Firstly, I don’t take into account inflation, I’ve just worked out everything at today’s prices, and neither do I take into account any returns you might make investing rather than paying down the mortgage, which is the main early-retirement strategy in my scenario. However, these two things being equal in both my average and frugal-consumer examples, you are still a lot better of spending as little as possible on anything other than the mortgage or savings. Another potential limitation of the model is that it is mainly based on someone having a stable job, and being single, although it is possible to ‘stick to the programme’ while moving around jobs and holding down a relationship, maybe even kids, just a lot more difficult. 

References (lots more in the book!)

(1)See the spread sheet above

(2)Office for National Statistics – Family Spending 2013


(4)ONS – Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2013 –

‘Buddhist Sociology’ by Inge Bell – A summary

Summary of Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

I haven’t done any commentary on this yet, but I thought I’d get this summary out anyway…

The first explicit call for a ‘Buddhist Sociology’ was made by Inge Bell (1979) who suggested that an examination of sociology from within the perspective of the ‘eastern  disciplines’ could  challenge some of the theoretical assumptions of Sociology,  inform research methods, and contribute to a critique of the profession itself.

Buddhist challenges to sociological notions of socialisation

In contrast to sociology’s view of socialisation as a mainly positive process, Bell conceputalised the realisation of Enlightenment as a process of desocialisation in which the individual unlearns everything society has taught them, including dualisms such as good and evil, subject and object, casting the enlightened being as one who, having gone through the process of desocialisation, was free to deviate from social norms and, able to see the world afresh without human concepts.

Bell further suggested that the process of realising Satori, or Enlightenment did not involve resocialisation, a process instead variously described as ‘assimilating a thought system which denies the validity of all thought systems; ‘regaining the qualities of childhood’, and ‘experiencing an expansive, unlimtied state of existence in which ‘every deed expresses originality, creativity…. [in which there is] no conventionality, creativity, no inhibitory motivation….’

Bell however did not entirely dismiss the utility of Socialisation, and accepted that there were some posiitve aspects, such as learning  language, learning to use technology and learning basic social codes, which she contrasted to ‘dangerous’ aspects of socialisation which were those tied to and generated by conern for the fate of the self, such as ideas about the afterlife; beliefs that one can be immortalised through celebrity, myths which justify the will to power, and the master illusion of the self as seperate from its environment.

Buddhist challenges to sociological conceptions of the self

Bell congratulated sociologists such as Mead and Bulmer for recognising that socialisation normally results in the creation of an ideal social-self, which is seperate from the ‘subjectively experienced self’, and that emotional problems such as anxiety can emerge when the ideal self and the ‘me’ don’t converge, but went on to criticise them for viewing the ideal-self as a necessary construction and a legitimate structure without which the individual could not function socially, and one which enabled goal-oriented behaviour, underlying a growth-process.

Bell contrasted this to the ‘Eastern view’ according to which the self is not a fixed entity, rather only a series of occurances and experiences,  and as such ‘I’ am merely a process, a continuous creation and re-creation, changing as ‘I’ enter each social situation. In such a view subjective reflections on one’s ‘ideal-self’ merely represent a refusal to accept reality fully (and thus one has to question the validity of engaging in depth-studies of the constructions of such ficticious selves)

Bell suggested that Peter Berger’s micro-analysis of the self came closest to Buddhist conceptions of the self, evidenced in such lines as ‘deception and self-deception are at the very heart of social reality….. in the end we must return to the nightmare moment when we feel ourselves stripped of all names and identities’, but criticised Berger for seeeing the proccess of realising one’s lack of self’ as a wholly negative process.

As a way of overcoming the attendent fear at the ‘death of the self’ Bell argued that we should incorporate the possibility of an Enlightened being into Sociological analysis, a being who plays many roles but does not use them to confer a sense of self; and one who has seen through the view that the self is normal and inevitable, but none the less goes on as before, but does so with a sense of lightness.

Finally in this section, Bell pointed out that incorporating an Eastern sense of self into the sociological imagination would help us realise that there is something more valuable than the conceptualising, knowledge creating ntellect, called basic intelligence, which is our ability to perceive and deal with reality without reference to accumulated knowledge.

A Buddhist contribution to methods

In a relatively short section on Metholodogy, Bell suggested that the Eastern paths could offer social researchers a  potential way of going beyond the distortions which arise because of self-interest and to engage in genuinley value-free research.

She celebrated Mannheim, Mills and Gouldner for their realisation that to do so man must understand his own position in history and how this shapes perception, but then argued that intellect alone was not enough to lift us above our values. To illustrate this, she cited the example of Mannheim (Ideology and Utopia) who, having developed an analysis of how social position formed ideology, went on to evelate his own class, the ‘social intelligensia’ to the position of the only group in society capable of seeing objectively.

Bell concluded that self-interest is rooted not in intellect, but in emotion, and so in order to transcend self-interest, we need detachment from our emotions, and ultimately to detach ourselves from self. She went on to say that enlightenment must revolutionise the practise of Sociology, which to my mind implies that Bell was suggesting that some form of spiritual training towards self-transcendence is necessary to realise a truly value-free sociology.

Toward an Enlightened Sociology

In this section, Bell vents her frustration at the fact that Sociology has almost nothing to say about how students might actually live in order to raise the quality of their lives, and that this should be remedied by restoring teaching, and personal contact between teacher and student as a central value of the profession in order to encourage students to engage in ‘enlightened self appraisal’.

She suggests that the teaching of Sociology would be most useful if it focused on encouraging students to reflect on what can be changed, as well as offering adivse on how to cope with what cannot be changed. Bell believed that at the root of all of this lay a deep-appraisal of the universe and one’s place in it, which meant getting over the notions that ‘good’ is whatever contributes to ‘my happiness and security’ and ‘bad’ is whatever threatens these things.

As a means to develop such an outlook, she suggested that the teaching of Sociology should focus on developing students’ empathetic understanding, rooted in cultural relativism which could be promoted  in a number of ways: students might be required to live in some unfamiliar part of society for a year, they might be guided into what she calls ‘sociadrama’, involving taking on the roles of others, as well as visits from various people.

Toward a Practicing Sociology

In this section Bell criticised the profession of Sociology, on a number of grounds for being full of ideas about reforming society, but making little connection between these ideas and their day-to-day actions. She cites as examples:

  • Theorising about community while junior colleagues suffer from insecure positions.
  • Moaning about inequality while thinking their own students are unworthy of their attention.
  • Claiming to be concerend with improving society yet being primarily concerend with career advancement
  • Supporting the competitive system of publish-or-perish which leads to a obstructive body of material that demeans those who write.

Ultimately Bell argued that the problem of professional Sociology was that it demythologised American culture, only to replace it with the myth of ‘academaya’, where the professional role was one of striving, competing and deadly seriousness. She saw all of this as a highly developed form of concern with the ego which propogated the idea of goal-orientation as the only possible mode of human conduct. In Bell’s own words…. ‘we enlighten our students to the edge of liberation only to ensnare them again in the authority structure of the acadamy and the related professions’.


Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Pointillist Time, Blase Attitudes and Anomic Melancholy – why today’s students struggle to see the relevance of education


Zygmunt Bauman: Liquid modern challenges to education. Lecture given at the coimbra group annual conference – Padova, 26 may 2011

This lecture mostly focusses on outlining the ways in which young people today experience life in a profoundly different way to previous generations, and how this experience is inseperable from consumer culture and hyperculture. The specific implications for educators are left almost wholly untouched, so I’ve drawn my own conclusions along the way (getting individuals to do just this – for themselves – is, I imagine, one of the intentions behind Bauman’s ambivalence). On final analysis, I think the point Bauman is trying to make is that an educational paradigm rooted in a ‘linear notion of preparing students for the future’ is completely out of sync with the way in which young people experience the world via a consumer oriented hyperculture. Towards the end of the lecture, Bauman also questionswhether the decision to go to university is a rational one, given the insecurities in the labour market which may well limit students actual life-chances in the future.

As I said above, and I say it again for emphasis in case anyone wants to read it, despite the title this is really a lecture on ‘what the experience of living in a hyperreal consumer culture is like’ (worth a read for its own sake), and it doesn’t start to focus in on (the seeming pointlessness) of education until the final section.

What’s offered below is my summary and interpretation of Bauman’s ideas about the basic characteristics of the experience of life in a liquid modern (consumer oriented, hyperreal culture). My own contributions are mainly twofold – Firstly, I’ve added in a few illustrations to make this material less abstract, and secondly I’ve added in some thoughts on how this experience might be at odds with the way students experience education today (which is what I thought the lecture would’ve been about in the first place!). I will add in critique later, for now I’m exploring the utility of Bauman’s analytical framework by ‘rollling with him’. (And wierdly I’m actually quite enjoying the experience.). This is very much explorative, and drawn from my own experience of teaching for 16-19s for 12 years. (Only 27 years to go…. roll on that lottery win).

This post is just my initial summary of the lecture, more detail to follow in future posts…

Young people today grow up in a liquid-modern, consumer-oriented, hyperculture which encourages the following –

1. An experience of time as  ‘pointillist’ – in which every moment is pregnant with infinite possibilities, although most of these possibilities remain unrealised. Pointillist time is the experience of many things going on at the same time, and one in which ‘now’ matters more than the future, because ‘if you miss it it’s gone’.

2. The anomic feeling of drowning in an information deluge, in which individuals are bombarded with too much information and have to deselect the majority of information, but lack the capacity to make decisions about which information is most worthy of attention (not least of all because of the pressure to make decisions quickly, meaning there is little time for reflection).

3. A ‘disposable attitude‘ to the products and experiences consumed: life appears as something which is about consuming and disposing, experiencing and forgetting, and all at a forever quickening pace.

At the emotional-intentional level, consumer culture accelerated via hyperculture, tends to lead to a blase and/ or melancholic experience of life. Blase in the sense that commitment to anything seems irrational when continued happiness rests on the ability to forget and move on to the next experience, and melancholic because although hyperculture is pregnant with possibilities, most of these possiblities are never realised. As far as I can see this experienc is also anomic, characterised by both an anxious uncertainty and a gnawing disaffection. (There may be a reason why Bauman doesn’t actually use the word anomie, but unless I’m mistaken, this is basically what he’s driving at.)

Bauman does not say it explicitly, but it is relatively easy to see that the experience of young people, socialised into an anxious, nowist orientation to time, a blase, disposable attitude towards consumption, all underscored by a melancholic/ anomic uncertainty about what it is that they should actually be doing is completely out of sync with many aspects of today’s standard, educational paradigm which asks students to defer gratification and make a long-term commitment to the progressive accumulation of knowledge and skills that will be useful to a future life, which this paradigm further seems to mistakenly assume will also involve some level of life-world security (an experience which is alien to today’s youth).

Bauman finishes off his lecture by delivering a final kick in the teeth to education’s relevance to today’s students: given the relentless downgrading of grades it is far from certain that a university degree you will lead to a well-paying job at the end*, it could actually be the case that today, that if your goal is a good salary and a (relatively) stable career, non-graduates have as much chance of achieving these things as graduates.

(*although this does not apply to the wealthy who can afford to attend the very best universities and have a greater capacity to network their way into the best jobs.)

NB – There are plenty of other threads in this lecture, and the related lectures, to pick up on… this is just one, elaborated on by me!

More detailed summary to follow. Just one question in the meantime… If all of this is actually true – what an earth are we doing as educators? My own prefered strategey right now, is to go buy cake and just try not to think about it, it’s just a question of figuring out what cake?

Related Links

The Bauman Institute – Liquid Modern Challenges to Education (another version of the talk)

Liquid Modern Challenges to Education – Journal Article

Who are you? (Laughter)

The video below shows a number of people laughing when asked the question ‘who are you’? (1.55)


These people are all highly respected, typically well- educated (in the formal sense of the word) teachers from a range of different spiritual traditions (most, if not all wiill be in attendance at the Science and Nonduality conference 2013 – SAND honors and nurtures the exploration and experience of nonduality as a pathway to greater wisdom and wellbeing in the context of the unique challenges of the 21st century.

Their laugh-response to the question of ‘who are you’ reminded me of a line in Paul Willis’ 1977 classic, Learning to Labour. Just in case you don’t know this off by heart…..  Willis discusses role that messing around and ‘avin a laff’ play in the counter-school-culutre, concluding that ‘the laugh confronts the command’. Willis argues that the laugh is a collective response to what the lads see as a ludicrous situation – school tells them to study seriously to prepare themselves for middle class jobs, but the lads have already decided they want ‘proper’ manual jobs that don’t require qualifications, and even if they did try to take school seriously, they’ve penetrated the truth of the situation and realised schools are middle class institutions, so the odds are stacked against them. In such a ludicrous situation what can you do but laugh at it?*

Obviously there are differences in the laughter in video above (it’s individualised, not collective; it’s not overtly challlenging authority in an ‘in your face way’; and it’s extremely middle class and not at all laddish) but a little analysis drags out a few parallels too. To my mind, their laughter when asked ‘who are you’ says ‘what a ludicrous question’, and it’s ludicrous because the subject of the question, ‘you’, or rather ‘I’ is an illusion. Most of these people have been through an intense and long process of introspetion, realised this, and come out the other side, and now they laugh at the question.

Given that the laughter above stems from a realisation that there is ‘no-I’, such laughter oould also form the basis for confronting the ultimate command in a postmodern consumer culture – the command to ‘express yourself’, the command to expend a huge amount of money and effort on perpetually reinventing and presenting your constructed-self, the command to avoid looking into the true nature of your ‘self’ and ‘working through’ the realisation that there is nothing there.

Furthermore, this laughter reminds us of two things, especially important in a culture of intellectualism – Firstly, simply the importance of asking meaningful questions. Secondly, answering meaningful questions requires going beyond the intellect, to a place of lived experience, and the process of coming back and re-engaging with an intellectual culture and attempting to render such experiences into concepts will probably be easier (at least less fraught) if one maintains a sense of humour.

*Finally I should just mention that just like the lads’ realisation that school was a middle class institution didn’t really help them achieve a good ‘quality of life’ in the long-term, an initial realisation the ‘truth of no-I’ at a relatively superficial level (that’s all I’ve managed) probably won’t result in your walking around in a perpetual state of bliss-consciousness, that will take a good deal more right effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Related Posts

David Loy (who features in the video above) on our fear of existing

Using twitter to research sexism

Just stumbled across an interesting use of twitter – I’m not sure exactly what time it started but sometime today (the first tweets originate from 8 Hrs ago, so it must have started circa 12.00 GMT) @EverydaySexism (website here) facilitated a TWITTER CHAT on Street Harassment on the #ShoutingBack encouraging users to tweet their experiences of harassment.
This post lists some of the responses and then discusses methods
A selection of tweets on #shoutingback
Most responses relayed experiences on the street and in bars. Some of the most shocking/ retweeted include – (NB – These are in no particular order, my twitter analysis skills aren’t up to that!)

Abi OAbi O@ashke50at 15, with friends on train, group of boys blocking our path and asking if they “made us wet”.

EverydaySexismRT TheAfricanHippy Walking home in the afternoon.Drunk guy says: If I knew where you lived, I’d follow you home and rape you

Emma AmatoEmma Amato ‏@emmatronic – A van that blocks you while cycling so the driver can tell you he wants to be your saddle

Rachel BichenerRachel Bichener ‏@rachelwaxinglyr – chased by a bin lorry full of jeering men for a mile while on my bike, aged 18. Never rode again until 32.

chillerchiller ‏@chiller – If I wrote down all the assaults & verbal harassment experienced since age 12 I’d be here for a month.

ylhlhrylhlhr ‏@stopgrinning – complaining about street harassment or harassment in general, being told by others you should feel ‘flattered’.

Dancing MisanthropeDancing Misanthrope ‏@DaMisanthrope – People shocked by India rape reports as if it’s a foreign problem, check your own backyard

Roxanna BennettRoxanna Bennett@roxannabennett – Male friends told me it was disgusting I was breast feeding and that’s not what tits are for

Natasha ViannaNatasha Vianna ‏@NatashaVianna – Clubs are the worst! How many times have I felt stiff penis on my back while dancing? Too many.

Ellie ThomasEllie Thomas ‏@EleanorMThomas – Friend and I trying to take down tent at festival without bending over, due to shouts of “legs” and “boobs”

Tarah STarah S ‏@tarahfied –  going out to a club. guys decide to dance&touch w/o asking, get offended when you push them away or say no.


I also quite liked this response…

Hollaback Girl ‏@hollabackgrrrl – Man in bar repeatedly groped me, used homophobic/sexist slurs. I yelled at him the first 3 times. The fourth I broke his nose.

So what are the strengths and limitations of this as a method for finding out about street harassment? 


  • Firstly on a practical note  it’s very easy to set up, free, and accessible
  • Secondly, it’s hopefully empowering for the women using it – I like to think of women reading thinking ‘I’m not the only one’ – quite a few tweets with ‘solidarity’
  • Thirdly, on the concept of validity – it’s giving users the freedom to define sexual harrassment, useful for facilitating debate around the issue.
  • Fourthly, it’s giving us an idea of the range of experiences of sexual harassment – could be a useful basis for operationalising a questionnaire with a more representative sampling frame.
Now to the limitations
  • Firstly and most obviously, the sample will be biased in the extreme – limited to twitter users, and to users who follow @Everydaysexism and happen to be on twitter at the opportune moment, so this research is useless as a quantitative study.
  • Secondly, we always have to question the validity of what’s being said and it is very difficult to validate the truth of what these women are saying. I am not saying these women are lying, just that it is practically impossible to verify what they are saying.  Having said this, I personally wouldn’t have thought there is that much motivation to lie on twitter about such experiences given that ‘coming out with them’ is probably accompanied by negative emotions.
Find out More 

If you want to find out more about the extent of street harassment – then check out the collective action for safe spaces blog (U.S based)

This Guardian Article suggests 40% of women have experienced sexual harassment – based on a yougov poll

Hollaback – a depressing but useful site in which women in Birmingham share their experiences of harassment, has the potential to expand into more areas!