Time Poverty: Why Are We All So Busy?

Topic: Human Interest

Alexandra Jemetz CIM

December 24, 2015

Image used with permission: iStock/Aleutie


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Time Poverty: Why Are We All So Busy?

"The predictions sounded like promises: in the future, working hours would be short and vacations long. “Our grandchildren”, reckoned John Maynard Keynes in 1930, would work around “three hours a day”—and probably only by choice." 

So starts a great (albeit lengthy) article from the December 20, 2014 edition of the Economist.

Clearly, this was one that Keynes got wrong.  Really wrong.  Although the article cites that, technically, “American men toil for pay nearly 12 hours less per week, on average, than they did 40 years ago”,  that statistic doesn’t conjure up a vision of people swinging in hammocks and drinking lemonade.  Weren’t the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, with their cars and their dishwashers and their computers, supposed to save us time so we could take part in more enjoyable and leisurely activities?  The answer is quite simple:  “When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.”

In socioeconomic terms, the cost of leisure time has increased exponentially.  People are more careful and conscious in their use of time.  As wages increase, people work longer, because now working becomes a more profitable use of one’s time.   In 2011, University of Toronto researchers Sanford DeVoe and Julian House carried out an experiment which looked at the reaction of two groups of people as they listened to the first 86 seconds of “The Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé.  Before the experiment, one group was asked to think about the value of their time by estimating their hourly wage; the other was not. “The participants who made this calculation ended up feeling less happy and more impatient while the music was playing,” as compared to the group not asked to value their time. The first group “wanted to get to the end of the experiment to do something that was more profitable,” explains Mr. DeVoe.

This increased value of work time puts upward pressure on time in general and the result is that leisure time begins to seem stressful as people fell pressured to use it in the wisest and most efficient manner.  “Being busy can make you rich, but being rich makes you feel busier still.”  Swedish economist Staffan Linder in 1970 observed that utility maximization of leisure time becomes more important and the best way to do this, he found, was for people to increase their consumption per unit of time.  A person, he mused, “may find himself drinking Brazilian coffee, smoking a Dutch cigar, sipping a French cognac, reading the New York Times, listening to a Brandenburg Concerto and entertaining his Swedish wife—all at the same time, with varying degrees of success.”  The socioeconomic result of this phenomenon is a “harried leisure class”, and when confronted with multiple choices of how to consume time given the opportunity cost of making that choice, stress levels rise.

Many people take no care of their money till they come nearly to the end of it, and others do just the same with their time. –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This evolution has arguably worsened over the decades, and especially with the advent of the internet.  We have become a society of instant-gratification – impatient and constantly vexed by thoughts that we can be doing so much more with the time we have.  Multi-tasking has become a necessary skill, but with undesired consequences; it makes us feel more pressed for time.  And the people most affected?  After decades of the opposite, it is now the best educated and highest paid workers putting in the longest hours and juggling the most household responsibilities.  In the hierarchy of this ‘juggling class’, working parents are at the top, and the most time-scarce segment of society, according to Geoffrey Godbey, time-use expert at Penn State University, are working mothers with young children.

It’s not a surprising observation, especially when you think about it in the context of competitive advantage. “Parents also now have far more insight into how children learn and develop, so they have more tools (and fears) as they groom their children for adulthood. This reinforces another reason why well-off people are investing so much time in parenthood: preparing children to succeed is the best way to transfer privilege from one generation to the next. Now that people are living longer, parents are less likely to pass on a big financial bundle when they die. So the best way to ensure the prosperity of one’s children is to provide the education and skills needed to get ahead, particularly as this human capital grows ever more important for success. This helps explain why privileged parents spend so much time worrying over schools and chauffeuring their children to résumé-enhancing activities. “Parents are now afraid of doing less than their neighbours,” observes Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies contemporary families. “It can feel like an arms race.” 

 It truly is a conundrum, and nobody’s purporting that it will get better in the future; likely, it will get worse.  As I try to digest the statistics and observations of this article in the framework of my own ‘harried’ life – especially at this time of the year – I am reminded of an old fable, which goes something like this (the author is unknown although Nobel Prize-winning writer Heinrich Böll traces the story’s roots to Plutarch’s tales of the victories of Pyrrhus):

A fisherman was lying in the warm afternoon sun on a beautiful beach, with his pole propped up and his line cast out into the water. An energetic businessman walked by.

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman. “You should work harder.”

The fisherman looked up and good-naturedly asked, “And what would I get for that?”

The businessman replied that he would catch more fish, sell them for more money, save the surplus, and invest in a boat and nets, which would let him catch even more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Somewhat impatiently, the businessman explained that he could then reinvest the even greater surplus and buy more boats and hire staff, becoming a small business and catching ever more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Now the businessman lost it. “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you never have to work for a living again? You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach, just enjoying this sunset!”

The fisherman’s eyes lit up. “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

In any case, the entire article is worth a read.  That is, if you have the time.

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