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Time for Things

Time for Things

Labor, Leisure, and the Rise of Mass Consumption

Stephen D. Rosenberg

ISBN 9780674979512

Publication date: 01/12/2021

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Modern life is full of stuff yet bereft of time. An economic sociologist offers an ingenious explanation for why, over the past seventy-five years, Americans have come to prefer consumption to leisure.

Productivity has increased steadily since the mid-twentieth century, yet Americans today work roughly as much as they did then: forty hours per week. We have witnessed, during this same period, relentless growth in consumption. This pattern represents a striking departure from the preceding century, when working hours fell precipitously. It also contradicts standard economic theory, which tells us that increasing consumption yields diminishing marginal utility, and empirical research, which shows that work is a significant source of discontent. So why do we continue to trade our time for more stuff?

Time for Things offers a novel explanation for this puzzle. Stephen Rosenberg argues that, during the twentieth century, workers began to construe consumer goods as stores of potential free time to rationalize the exchange of their labor for a wage. For example, when a worker exchanges their labor for an automobile, they acquire a duration of free activity that can be held in reserve, counterbalancing the unfree activity represented by work. This understanding of commodities as repositories of hypothetical utility was made possible, Rosenberg suggests, by the standardization of durable consumer goods, as well as warranties, brands, and product-testing, which assured wage earners that the goods they purchased would be of consistent, measurable quality.

This theory clarifies perplexing aspects of behavior under industrial capitalism—the urgency to spend earnings on things, the preference to own rather than rent consumer goods—as well as a variety of historical developments, including the coincident rise of mass consumption and the legitimation of wage labor.


  • An enormously ambitious and highly provocative book, Time for Things addresses one of the most central and most difficult puzzles in economics and political economy: why is it that advanced capitalist societies do not use their high and growing productivity for more free time—with great benefits for individuals, social life, and the environment—and instead increase consumption in line with rising productive capacity? With extraordinary conceptual precision and theoretical acumen, Rosenberg shows how the various versions of modern economics fail to even come close to resolving the puzzles posed by the apparent stability of consumerist capitalism. Whether or not his approach to this puzzle will stand after criticism, the debate that Rosenberg has started will be a major one and is likely to add significantly to our understanding of contemporary capitalism.

    —Wolfgang Streeck, author of How Will Capitalism End?


  • Stephen D. Rosenberg, a historical sociologist and social theorist, is a Visiting Tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press