Why is everyone so busy?

[Note:  This item comes from friend Judi Clark.  DLH]

Why is everyone so busy?
Time poverty is a problem partly of perception and partly of distribution
Dec 20 2014

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. Economic progress and technological advances had already shrunk working hours considerably by his day, and there was no reason to believe this trend would not continue. Whizzy cars and ever more time-saving tools and appliances guaranteed more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. Social psychologists began to fret: whatever would people do with all their free time?

This has not turned out to be one of the world’s more pressing problems. Everybody, everywhere seems to be busy. In the corporate world, a “perennial time-scarcity problem” afflicts executives all over the globe, and the matter has only grown more acute in recent years, say analysts at McKinsey, a consultancy firm. These feelings are especially profound among working parents. As for all those time-saving gizmos, many people grumble that these bits of wizardry chew up far too much of their days, whether they are mouldering in traffic, navigating robotic voice-messaging systems or scything away at e-mail—sometimes all at once.

Tick, tock

Why do people feel so rushed? Part of this is a perception problem. On average, people in rich countries have more leisure time than they used to. This is particularly true in Europe, but even in America leisure time has been inching up since 1965, when formal national time-use surveys began. American men toil for pay nearly 12 hours less per week, on average, than they did 40 years ago—a fall that includes all work-related activities, such as commuting and water-cooler breaks. Women’s paid work has risen a lot over this period, but their time in unpaid work, like cooking and cleaning, has fallen even more dramatically, thanks in part to dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves and other modern conveniences, and also to the fact that men shift themselves a little more around the house than they used to.

The problem, then, is less how much time people have than how they see it. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.

Individualistic cultures, which emphasise achievement over affiliation, help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. This creates an urgency to make every moment count, notes Harry Triandis, a social psychologist at the University of Illinois. Larger, wealthy cities, with their higher wage rates and soaring costs of living, raise the value of people’s time further still. New Yorkers are thriftier with their minutes—and more harried—than residents of Nairobi. London’s pedestrians are swifter than those in Lima. The tempo of life in rich countries is faster than that of poor countries. A fast pace leaves most people feeling rushed. “Our sense of time”, observed William James in his 1890 masterwork, “The Principles of Psychology”, “seems subject to the law of contrast.”

When people see their time in terms of money, they often grow stingy with the former to maximise the latter. Workers who are paid by the hour volunteer less of their time and tend to feel more antsy when they are not working. In an experiment carried out by Sanford DeVoe and Julian House at the University of Toronto, two different groups of people were asked to listen to the same passage of music—the first 86 seconds of “The Flower Duet” from the opera “Lakmé”. Before the song, one group was asked to gauge their hourly wage. The participants who made this calculation ended up feeling less happy and more impatient while the music was playing. “They wanted to get to the end of the experiment to do something that was more profitable,” Mr DeVoe explains.

The relationship between time, money and anxiety is something Gary S. Becker noticed in America’s post-war boom years. Though economic progress and higher wages had raised everyone’s standard of living, the hours of “free” time Americans had been promised had come to nought. “If anything, time is used more carefully today than a century ago,” he noted in 1965. He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

The harried leisure class

That economic prosperity would create feelings of time poverty looked a little odd in the 1960s, given all those new time-saving blenders and lawnmowers. But there is a distinct correlation between privilege and pressure. In part, this is a conundrum of wealth: though people may be earning more money to spend, they are not simultaneously earning more time to spend it in. This makes time—that frustratingly finite, unrenewable resource—feel more precious.