Do Labour-Saving Devices Complicate Life?

Labour-Saving Devices Complicate Life

I’ve fallen in love with simplicity. Since discovering minimalism, I’ve been really questioning what I do and don’t need. But some of my most meaningful discoveries have been made out of necessity.

I grew up in a very low-income family, but we still had the typical labour-saving devices. Dishwasher, tumble dryer, microwave, electric kettle, toaster. Then, in my second year of uni, I moved into a house where none of these were provided.

At first, I dreaded the thought of washing up by hand every day. I’d barely ever had to do it! But I soon realised it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was a good way of practicing mindfulness, since my hands were occupied but my mind wasn’t.

To begin with, drying laundry was a nightmare. It was still damp even after three days of hanging up indoors, and often developed an unpleasant smell. Eventually, I learnt to only wash clothes on dry days and hang them outside instead. I even started to enjoy hanging clothes on the line – it was somehow therapeutic. Being an environmentally-conscious person, it felt good to be saving electricity.

For the short periods we were without a toaster and kettle, I enjoyed boiling water in a pan to make tea, and making toast on the grill. It was nice not to have so many appliances cluttering up the kitchen. Things took a little longer, but it didn’t matter. It was sometimes nice to slow down and not always be rushing.

My parents gave me an old microwave which had been lying around in the shed, but I found myself using it less and less. Most things tasted better when cooked on the hob or in the oven. I began to dream of a simple kitchen with only the essential devices.

I also began to wonder why we feel we need all these appliances in the first place. The answer, I suppose, is that our lives have become increasingly busy. We’re always in a rush, and we don’t have time to wait around. We’ve also become accustomed to convenience, and soon become impatient if things take too long.

These days, the cost of living is so high that a couple living alone will probably both have to work. Previously, of course, one would have a job whilst the other would take care of the house. This must be one reason why labour-saving devices became so popular. In a way, I think this is a shame. A huge proportion of people feel their jobs are meaningless or unsatisfying. With many modern jobs, it’s hard to see how they benefit anyone. Housework, on the other hand, always feels useful; it would be nice if it was recognised as real work. However, I don’t think it’s a great idea for one person to earn all the money and another to do all the housework. To me, it seems better to split both tasks so no-one becomes resentful.

Do labour-saving devices detach us from our work?

When I left uni and suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, I noticed something strange.  After loading my clothes into the washing machine, I’d be hit with an odd sense of detachment. It was as if I was disconnected from the process of washing my clothes, because the machine was doing it for me. It felt wrong when I came back later and my clothes were almost magically clean. And when I used my parents’ dishwasher, it felt like cheating! Sometimes the dishwasher and washing machine would both be going, and I’d be sitting around without much to do. This seemed silly.

I really crave work that directly benefits myself and those around me. It brings me great inner peace to sit at the table with my mum, peeling apples the neighbour has brought us from his orchard. It’s the same when I go blackberry-picking, or cook a meal for my family. It’s work, but the benefits are so clear that it doesn’t feel like it.

For this reason, I really admire self-sufficient communities. Everyone chips in, whether it’s to produce food and energy, repair things or build homes. Money doesn’t change hands, because it doesn’t need to. I sometimes think the devices intended to make our lives easier actually make things more complicated.

Finding balance

Of course, I am generalising a lot here. Some people have meaningful jobs which they love and wouldn’t change for the world. And I don’t think machines and labour-saving devices are evil. In reality, I would probably tire of washing clothes by hand very quickly! But I do think there’s a middle ground. I’ve written before about the manual washing machine I used on a permaculture farm in North Wales. Turning the handle just 120 times was enough to wash our clothes. It felt good to be doing at least some of the work myself, and of course it helped the environment too. It’s worth noting that many appliances, especially small ones like kettles and toasters, are very power-hungry. We might save considerable energy by doing without them.

This brings to mind the Rayburn in my childhood home. It heated the house and the water, but also functioned as a stove. We turned up in the evenings to cook, and boiled an old-fashioned kettle on it at the same time. This meant we could boil water for tea without using any extra fuel. We could also toast bread on the hotplate. When it was cold, we all gathered around the Rayburn. And it did an excellent job of drying laundry, along with wet shoes and coats. Essentially, it could be a boiler, oven, heater, toaster and tumble dryer all in one – simplicity itself, and extremely durable. Looking back, we could definitely have done without most of our appliances.

Labour-Saving Devices Complicate Life
An Aga stove, similar to a Rayburn. Sadly, ours wasn’t green!

Finding balance is important. I think some gadgets, like food processors, are exceptionally useful. And I’m going to keep using my (second-hand) laptop and phone. But I will also strive to keep my life as simple as I reasonably can, because I know that’s what brings me happiness. What about you?

Labour-Saving Devices Complicate Life



7 comments / Add your comment below

    1. Haha I’m going to be doing someone else’s washing up from Monday when I start workawaying! I will probably be sick of it within a week 😉

  1. I think saving money and especially reducing environmental impact may be better reasons for reducing use of such devices, at least for me personally. Personally, I would much rather stick the clothes in the machine and gain myself some time to read or play with my kids or whatever else. I am forever trying to find faster ways of doing boring things in order to create more time free in the evenings. No matter how much time I have, I never get bored or don’t know what to do. I wonder if perhaps your attitude might be better for people that are good multi taskers, and need to ponder on things before reaching a decision.

    The world is not really going in your direction to be honest. Right now their at probably teams of people at Apple, Samsung and other companies working hard trying to get their next generation smart phone biometrics to unlock their phones 0.2 seconds faster.

    1. I assume that you work in the daytime, however. I’ve chosen a lifestyle where (at least currently) I don’t have a job, as such. That gives me a lot more time to fill. Though I love devoting lots of time to my hobbies, and am rarely bored, I find that having some ‘boring’ chores to do makes me appreciate spending time on my hobbies all the more. Essentially, doing chores is to me what having a job is to most other people. I’m well aware that most people don’t share my views, but I’m glad that I can at least choose to opt out of that way of life. I suspect my mental health is all the better for it, though of course everyone is different.

      1. I work Monday-Friday 9-5 and work around 35 hours a week on average not including breaks, luch time etc. I do think I would change a little in some aspects if I worked less hours per week, however I suspect I would never get bored or feel a need to “fill the time” even if I didn’t work at all. However, it’s difficult for me to know this for sure having not tried it for a long time. I think my whole life I have studied, work or travelled apart from some very brief periods.

  2. To think, 100 to 150 years ago it was thought that by now, with technological advancement, we’d all be working only a few hours a week. Instead, we are working longer and longer hours. It’s all a bit crazy, we’re stuck on a hamster wheel of more.
    You are really fortunate to have some perspective on this, so you can make intentional decisions, rather than just mindless seeking to acquire the growing list of “must have” items.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly how I feel! There seems to be this obsession with having a career, even though there really aren’t enough jobs for everyone. I feel very lucky to be in a position where I’m able to choose to live differently.

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