Lifestyle design: a new profession


We are running out of jobs.  So says David Heuther in BusinessWeek.

Mr. Huether says manufacturing jobs are at their lowest level in the U.S. in 50 years.  (This despite the fact that productivity is at an all time high.)  And this is not only an American problem.  The loss of manufacturing jobs is happening in 9 of 10 of the top economies (U.S., Japan, Germany, China, Britain, France, Italy, Korea, Canada and Mexico).  Yes, even China is losing jobs, 4.5 million of them since 2000!  I know.

Surely, some of the jobs have migrated to the non-manufacturing sectors.  We would expect this in a service/knowledge/innovation economy.  We would expect this in a marketplace where consumer tastes and preferences are fragmenting and long tail markets are expanding.   But I would be very surprised if nonmanufacturing jobs were making up the difference.  I suspect we’re still a couple of million jobs shy. 

Structural unemployment is a fact of our world, and it is a problem that will get steadily worse. 

So what to do?  I think marketers have a role to play here.  (I am stealing a page from Bruce Mau.  When he wonders who’s going to solve the problems of the world, he says, "why not designers?  We’ll do it."  Pretty forthright for a Canadian.  I look at the problem of lifelong unemployment, and think "why not marketers?  Leave this to us.") 

In fact, this might be a job for account planners, among other marketers, and so I will, without permission, think about this as an assignment for the Account Planning School of the Web, founded by Russell Davies. (With apologies to Mr. Davies for my presumption.)

The problem: many millions of people in First World societies will live entire lifetimes without "gainful employment." 

The assignment: Create a lifestyle that makes possible gainful unemployment.  Build a lifestyle that will involve, express, and otherwise engage someone who will never work. 

Some considerations:

1. idleness is hell. 

Lifestyle construction here is critical because idleness is hard on the soul.  (I think George Bernard Shaw developed this argument.)  And it’s not enough to say, "oh, just get a hobby."  Lifestyles, well designed ones, are rich, interesting, various.  They are not "a hobby."

2. meanings flow from what we do. 

This is why job loss can be so cataclysmic.  This is why so many people retire to bleakness and sometimes an early grave.  In order to correct the effects of lifelong unemployment, we need to find other sources of meaning, purpose, identity.  One way of getting into this would be to think about your own job, or someone else’s, and figure out what it supplies in the way of meaning, drama, engagement, concepts of self, concept of world, and so on.  What are alternative events and activities and engagements from which we can source these things?

3. build in manageable difficulty.

when we are create, select and combine employment alternatives, it’s worth remembering that everyone wants "manageable difficulty."  An engagement with the world should fall into the sweet spot that stands combines things we can go and things we can’t.  This is to say, we should have the skills and talents to engage with it, but it should be larger than those skills and talents.  In Halo II, the sweet spot for me is "Normal."  "Easy" is way too easy.  "Heroic" is way too hard.  (To be honest, "Heroic" reduced me to tears of bitter recrimination.)

4. make the difficulty scalable.

As we get better at the engagement, it should reveal layers of difficulty we did not see before.  We need a steady supply of challenges to which we can rise.  Someday, I hope to advance to "Heroic."  No, really.

5.  look for mattering racks

We’re odd this way.  We like building little mattering racks.  They help us organize the world and enable desire.  A good illustration here is the collector, for whom X is the great passion of his collecting activity, the thing he moves heaven and earth to get.  Two months later, it is Y that has his attention.  Yes, X is one of the jewels of his collection, but, no, he doesn’t really care about it.  Y is interesting because it will move this coin collection away from antiquities to coins of the early modern Europe.  Now an entire body of coins that never really mattered leaps suddenly into view.  Now, these matter enough to keep a man awake at night, scheming and plotting for the day when he outranks, outweighs, eclipses every other coin collector in Cincinnati.  Hah!

6.  build new kinds of capital, and systems for the exchange and accumulation of capital

That people are not gainfully employed gathering conventional capitals, does not mean they cannot be gainfully unemployed pursuing unconventional ones.  Collectors do this of course.  But it is also clear that one someone volunteers (geez, do something about this word and the odor of sanctimony that surrounds it, will ya!) for social service (phew!), the accululate various capitals, self esteem, social recognition, good will tokens.  This capital can be traded on various exchanges, but that’s the bad news.  You have to formalize these capitals, build new ones, and invent the exchanges.  I would use as an example. The trouble with is that capital goes in but it never comes out.  Another example here might be Second Life.  In fact, someday I hope there will be Account Planning School of the Web on Second Life.  I am there somewhere.  My name is Moral DaSilva.  I’m the one is the really stupid hat.  Leave me a message.

7. enable plenitude (the invention of new kinds of social life) and transformation (opportunities to add new selves and transform existing ones)

This is a big industry waiting to happen.  As it stands, we are doing things by implication.  A good deal of branding is about identity creation and transformation.  Someday, we will make it more explicit.   When that day comes, and there is a real market for identity supply, the graduates of the Account Planning School of the Web, will rise to greatness, as surely as did those Silicon Valley software engineers in the 1990s. 

8.  create lifestyle constellations

One of the most difficult tasks here is going to be finding ways to draw together varieties of interest, activity and engagement into lifestyle constellations that can be lived, swapped in and out, retrofitted when necessary, and allowed multiply with the chaotic enthusiasm of an English garden.  And that is another way to think of this exercise.  That what you are doing is creating trellaces and other devices in which the inventive energies of the gainfully unemployed may run riot. 

Please have your assignments in by tomorrow at noon.   Quiz Friday next.  Widmerpol, shut up. 


Huether, David.  2006.  The Case of the Missing Jobs.  BusinessWeek.  April 3, 2006. 

For more on the Russell Davies’ Account Planning School of the Web, please go here.


The image is a small part of the map of Elizabethan London by Hollar.  I liked it because it shows habitable places for people in transit. 

16 thoughts on “Lifestyle design: a new profession

  1. Pingback: Putting people first

  2. dilys

    Many of these are related to the questions driving me past bonkers in trying to introduce a prosperous, varied 350-household residential community to the idea that it *just might* be worthwhile to create social capital, perhaps through a neighborhood blog.

    [I get the feeling they regard someone who has such wild ideas as either a frowsy Gypsy Jones or a malevolent Pamela Flitton….]

  3. fouro

    So much fodder…

    “(This despite the fact that productivity is at an all time high.)”

    Or because of?

    I like the “hobby” reference. Some lamer once suggested that leading (one’s self, even, which should equal living) is most confounding when “life is in ‘hobby-mode,’ not survival-mode.” Sorta plays into the mytho-heroic thingy and self-motivation. Of course, today’s Info culture has a coin all it’s own so the currency is being ahead of the curve. I’d say looking to provide olympian opportunities for that is far from a dreamer’s pursuit. Hello, Apprentice. Hello BzzAgents. Hello, auto-Pygmalia. Hello, Faith Popcorn U?

  4. andrew

    Go back a hundred and fifty years and you had a huge percentage of the European population living in a kind of genteel poverty – existing on tiny pensions, small amounts of inherited capital (which they would never touch), extended families living in the same home, occupying themselves with intellectual pursuits (reading books, playing musical instruments, collecting butterflies etc etc). I’m not talking about the genuine poor (social groups D and E) but about the impoverished members of the upper middle classes and lower aristocracy who couldn’t work because of social conventions. It’s a world graphically described by Trollope. These classes, which were blown away by the First World War, were able to keep going because they didn’t really consume a great deal.

  5. Grant

    Auto, thanks, did you see, there’s a new biography of Powell out now. Best, Grant

    dilys, yes, who is working on this issue of social capital, I thought the prevailing treatment was too accusatory, (I _like_ bowling alone), this is a job for bloggers, account planners, and other people who think for a living on line. Thanks, Grant

    fouros, not for me the social capital that is cool and all the invidious distinctions that follow there from. After all, social capitals have their own scarcity logic. Thanks, Grant

    Andrew, brilliant! genteel poverty, this is a naturally occuring case in point, and I have always wondered about the connection between the terms, it is because these people had an abundance of status capital that they could be seen to endure and exhibit privation. And it’s not clear that the gainfully unemployed will have this capital to call upon and compensate with. I think there is a small current in British society that has insisted that all wealth is vulgar wealth. Which is to say we will need to change some of the cultural woodwork to install this response to life long unemployment. This is a great, great, idea. Thank you. Grant

  6. fouro

    Here, here, Grant. My examples are the feeble embryonic blindfold darts variety. The true heroic comes out of a subset of, maybe, newly liberated Millenials, the coming Digital Diogenes’ (-eses?)

    Andrew, I remember it vaguely. My Great Uncle Harry and Auntie Nellie, products of that generation. Big things were quietly talked about. A holiday to “the continent” was eeked out without fail. The Sunday chicken was Wednesday’s soup, but served on lace at a leisurely pace, in Harry’s garden. Gentel poverty is a marvelous term.

  7. Grant

    fouro, I wish it were my term, but I think it was invented by the incumbent. Best, Grant

    M E-L, I give up, what about eating? Best, Grant

  8. steve

    I think the economics are wrong. Productivity improvements for goods with low elasticity of demand will reduce employment for those goods. That’s why manufacturing employment is falling–you can’t sell 10% more steel when you cut its labor requirements by 10% (and cut its cost by less than 10%).

    But the question of overall unemployemnt and job creation, across all possible markets, doesn’t depend on productivity growth. Even with specialization, people can work on new things as old things employ fewer hands. How easy this is depends on a bunch of factors about the fluidity of the labor market, characteristics of the worker, and the expansiveness of macropolicy (e.g. interest rates).

    There is an interesting question about the possibilities of living a decent material life without having to work all the time. If you want to live as well as a middle-class person thirty years ago, you can move to a place without crazy real estate prices and get by on very little income. Of course, your relative position in the income distribution today will be much lower, but in terms of absolute material consumption, your food, shelter, entertainment, clothing, etc. can be as good or better than in 1976 without a traditional job.

    Will we see some sort of migration to this lifestyle from people who feel overwhelmed by the acrobatics necessary to stay current as full-time producers in an increasingly dynamic economy? And if so, could we sell these people lifestyle design as Grant proposes?

  9. Jason Spalding

    Riots are nothing new in France in 1789, when a Parisian crowd was demonstrating furiously in front of his palace, King Louis XVI asked, “Is it a riot?” and was answered, “No Sir, it is a revolution.’’

  10. Acad Ronin

    Employment is low in manufacturing precisely because of increasing productivity. Note, employment in agriculture in the US went from almost 100% to the present 3% precisely because productivity increased. Productivity improvements are gains against nature. We are doing more with less. This frees up people to do other things, ie services, and gives us the income to afford them.

  11. Grant

    Steve, I love this comparative point (that even those who live modestly live well) and it begs an anthropological response: why is it that we don’t feel this to be true, why does stigma still attach. Less stigma, to be sure, but we dont seem to be able to escape the evaluative frame that (now and only now) finds us wanting. This would be a very good reason for living like someone from 1958. It would signal the viewer that you wish to be judged by that standard and by that standard you are, we are, a very wealthy man indeed. Anthropological ruminations only. Thanks, Grant

    Jason, Revolutionary but not a full circle. Thanks, Grant

    Acad Ronin, thanks, point taken, this must be so or the creative professions could not sustain themselves, or, eventually, got on the business of lifestyle design! Thanks, Grant

  12. Mcgill

    As a member of first world society, My philosophy is simple, I believe that the jobs you offer should both inspire & excite me. It should be designed & crafted to add life to my domestic life & give me years of pleasure and I should never get the feeling that comes with being *employeed* under a lousy boss. As long as you can provide people like me with such jobs, we are all happy and we’ll continue to add to the country’s economy 🙂

  13. Natalie

    I feel as though I am going through a lifestyle design transition. My husband and I leave on September 30th to backpack to various countries around the world for a year or so. What do you think?

    As we have been planning for our adventure we have been updating a blog. We would love to have other opinions, ideas, encouragement, advice, helpful tips, and more left as comments.


  14. Marc Beneteau / Lifestyle Design School

    Interesting article and posts.
    Since Timothy Ferriss’ best-selling “4 hour work-week”, the term “lifestyle design” is generally referenced in relation to Tim’s book. However, the concepts and ideas go back at least 30 years, to Richard Nelson Bolles and “What color is your parachute”. I talk about this extensively on my site,, and also want to reference Clay Collin’s excellent blog The Growing Life ( that inspired my own writings in this area.

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