Where has the year gone?
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As the end of the year approaches, most of us will be breathing a collective sigh of relief. The working class will be looking forward to a few days off, while both they and most retirees will be eagerly anticipating some quality time with family members and friends who just never seem to be available during the year. So how is it that, at every age, every year we all just seem to be getting busier?
Looking back, predictions for the 21st century were so positive – in the future, working hours would be shorter and holidays would be longer and more frequent.
John Keynes predicted in 1930 that our grandchildren would work for around 3 hours a day, and even that, probably only by choice. Already by then, advances in technology and economic progress had resulted in working hours shrinking, and there was every reason to believe that this trend would continue. Fast cars and time saving appliances were guaranteed to reduce the drudgery and free up more time – psychologists were starting to become concerned about what everyone would do with all their free time in the future.
Yet here we are. Everybody, everywhere, seems to be perpetually busy. Time seems to be increasingly scarce, particularly amongst working parents. And the concept of time saving seems elusive while navigating voice messages and e-mail reminders in the traffic.
So why do we feel so rushed? Part of this is a perception issue. Generally, people in the richer countries have more leisure time than ever before, particularly in Europe. Since the introduction of the first surveys, the average employee works 12 hours less every week than he would have done 40 years ago, including refreshment breaks and commuting time!
Women’s time in paid work has predictably increased, although time doing unpaid work has reduced considerably, thanks to household conveniences such as dishwashers, washing machines and microwaves.
The problem seems to be more about people’s perceptions that they have less time. But since clocks were introduced to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been related to money. This direct relationship between time and money makes people worry more about wasting, saving or using time more efficiently (and profitably). As economies grow, and incomes rise, time becomes more valuable, and by implication, the scarcer it appears to be.
Workers that are paid by the hour are far less likely to volunteer their time and feel more agitated when not working.
Cultures that prize achievement naturally cultivate this time-is-money mindset, and thus the obvious urgency to make every moment count. This is especially noticeable in the bigger, wealthier cities or suburbs– all you need to do is compare the speed of the pedestrians in Sandton to those in Saldanha.
The link between time, money and anxiety was first documented by Gary Becker in the US in the 1960’s – the boom years following the war. Although standards of living were higher in the good times, the “free” time that had been promised hadn’t materialised. He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working is a more profitable use of time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, and people feel under pressure to use it more wisely or not at all.
Racing to the top
Thirty years ago, salaried employees generally enjoyed a perfectly manageable working week, with the odd long lunch and maybe even a round of golf. Lunches are now more likely than not devoured at one’s desk while scanning your inbox.
There has definitely been a trend of more spare time going to those with less education, but this is often a factor of there being fewer job opportunities for the less skilled, who also tend to spend less time doing work around the house and less time with their children.
The state of our economy certainly hasn’t helped, with many employees experiencing higher levels of job insecurity. Disruption in many industries has created more competition for well- paid and demanding jobs, with the added stresses of increasing costs of housing and education. To complicate matters further, we’re living longer, and are now responsible for making sure we don’t outlive our retirement savings. All this makes people more nervous about their prospects, and keeps them working in their offices for longer hours, for which they are generally rewarded.
Ultimately, because the gains of working (and the costs of slacking off) are higher than ever, many are willing to trade some of their leisure for work. For the top earners, leisure time is particularly expensive.
Educated parents are having children later in life, and spending more time with them, with a rise in expectations for good parenting. Working mothers with young children seem to be the most time-scarce of all. And by devoting more time to parenting, they are preparing them for success, which is, of course, the best way to transfer privilege from one generation to the next. We’re all too aware that as we are living longer, we are far less likely to pass on a large inheritance to our children.
No time to lose
Sadly, time is easily traded, and most highly valued when it is gone. Not many people complain about having too much of it, and it seems to run away faster as we get older.
As early as the first century, a Roman philosopher was amazed at how little people value their lives while living them, and noted how busy everyone seemed to be. He noticed how even wealthy people rushed through life, anticipating a time in the future when they could rest. Seneca commented in his book, “On the Shortness of Life”, about how people were so frugal in guarding their personal property, yet squandered their time so willingly. His was probably the first time-management self-help book.
So where does this all leave us? Being busy can make you rich, but being rich makes you feel even busier. Clearly we need to find a balance.