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News

Downside to more downtime is hard work it takes to use it up

University Of Chicago : 26 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
In 1930, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes published an essay called 'Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.'
Keynes surmised that the main problem of Americans today would be what to do with our copious leisure time.

Keynes figured productivity would surge (correct), wages would rise (of course), and people could do more in less time (yes). We'd wind up with all this time to hang around. This would lead to pool halls, Hummers and Hooters restaurants. I'm telling you, the man was uncanny.

Mathematically speaking, it was no problem to keep track of paid hours worked, the average day was pegged at eight hours in 1937, but could such things as work and chores and obligations and the absence of work be gauged? Could you quantify the full measure of the American life?

A fascinating notion. It presumes that number crunchers could slip a cool finger on the carotid artery of a nation by computing its cumulative work hours, the national time it takes to do the laundry, cook, clean, mow the yard and so on, and come up with a pulse that showed just how we spent our lives.

To figure this, they'd have people keep time-use diaries (down to 15-minute increments), look at census data and Bureau of Labor statistics, vacation time and so on. Track that data over decades, then throw it all in a computer. The results would show how much we worked and how much we played.

Fascinating.
Of course, it doesn't work.

There do happen to be two recent reports out, mind-numbingly complex things, that say Keynes was spot on. Americans' 'total work' time, the measure of compensated labor and domestic chores, has decreased dramatically in the past 40 years, the report's authors say. By the narrowest definition of leisure, time spent socializing, in active or passive entertainments, the average American has nearly 34 hours of completely free time each week, as compared with 30.6 hours in 1965.

We have more goof-off time than ever before! Pop goes the champagne!

'Keynes got this one right,' says Steven J. Davis, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

'Leisure has gone up dramatically in the past 40 years no matter how you define 'leisure,' 'says Erik Hurst, associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. He's co-author of 'Measuring Trends in Leisure,' one of the new research papers.

Hurst and fellow authors report working-age Americans (ages 21 to 65) have the equivalent of five to 10 extra weeks of leisure time each year, compared with 1965, thanks to better technology and shorter work hours. Most of it is in 20-, 30-minute chunks. People spend most of it watching television. A companion study, with a longer lens, says that Americans spend about one-third fewer hours at work today than they did in 1900.

This would be truly startling were it not for the herd of researchers who compute the same data and come to the complete opposite conclusion, that Americans work harder and longer than perhaps ever before. Work, in this view, has become something between a religion and a cell-phone-and-BlackBerry-fueled neurotic obsession that goes on in the office, at home and in between.

We have the technology to make short work of more chores (say, washing machines), but experience has shown that such things do not necessarily decrease labor (because it turns out people just wash clothes more often). We have riding lawnmowers, yes, but look at suburbia, bigger yards everywhere. Both improve the pleasure of living but do not inherently decrease the hours of work.

If Americans feel more harried and stressed than in years past, this version of the story goes, it's only because they don't know how to relax. Perhaps never really have.

Landmark 1991 book by Boston College economist Juliet B. Schor: 'The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure.' Title of the research paper by the Families and Work Institute: 'Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much.' Sample finding: '1 in 3 U.S. employees experienced feeling overworked as a chronic condition. . . . There is no question that work demands are continuing to escalate and many Americans have too much work to do.'

'Leisure time has been going down for the past 25 years, not up ,' Ellen Galinsky, head of the Families and Work Institute, is shouting through her cell phone in New York traffic. 'Better technology hasn't meant that we can work from anywhere, anytime. It's meant that we can work everywhere every time.'

How to explain the differences between the two views?

First, there is static in the numbers.

Different economists get different answers from the same data because they assign different merit to previous studies and adjust accordingly for their presumed accuracies or errors. The 1965 time-diary surveys used as a benchmark surveyed 2,001 people in Michigan, a third of them from one city. The survey was nationwide and included 27,566 people. Schor says the two are apples and oranges. Hurst & Co. do not.

Second, there's that sticky axiom that one woman's work is another woman's leisure. A single mom churning out spaghetti for the kids on Tuesday night equals 'work.' A weekend gourmet whipping up a six-course dinner equals 'leisure.' Both are scored as 'food preparation.'

But the larger issue here is not so much the idea of work but the concept of leisure, at least for the middle class.

Leisure implies a choice of what to do with one's time. 'Time off' only denotes a period between work shifts; it doesn't imply pleasure, the indolence of hours unfolding without demands made by others. Americans have a cultural sense of nostalgia for this, the hours of solitude or quiet family time. The Sunday dinner table at Grandma's. The long slow afternoon to follow, when there wasn't much to do and nowhere to go. Silence; a breeze.

That is a comforting image to most Americans, but actual leisure is something the country doesn't seem to trust, and that feeling is nothing new. 'What is compelling about the history of vacations is the constancy with which Americans have struggled with the notion of taking time off,' Cindy Aron, a University of Virginia history professor, writes in 'Working at Play,' a history of American vacations from the 18th century to World War II.

The republic was founded on the idea that Americans were building a more egalitarian (at least for land-owning white men) society that was based on hard work and material gain, as opposed to the class-ruled monarchy of England, where the upper crust wasn't expected to perspire. American hard work was also godly: Protestant thought was dominated by the Puritan-inspired theology that work was a 'blessing.' It put the body to God's productive labor, avoided temptation, and thus helped earn salvation in the next life.

Sloth, by contrast, was one of the seven deadly sins.

By the Victorian era, the middle class was growing. Merchants, businessmen and shopkeepers; Tthese were men proud of their sweat, their labor. (The measure of prosperity was whether the family's women had to work.) By 1899, the idle rich were suspect, and the phrase 'conspicuous consumption' was coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. It wasn't a kind reference. By 1904, even children were attending 'vacation school' at Gad's Hill, a retreat outside Chicago, where they learned sewing, basket weaving and charcoal drawing at one of what became a collection of endlessly self-improving summer camps.

By 1930, Keynes thought people would work to get things done, stop and go home. He may have been right about economic principles, but he did not fully comprehend the American unease with leisure. When aircraft and automobiles became commonplace, Americans didn't use the time saved in travel to hang out on the beach. They just traveled farther, did more work, earned more money, built bigger houses farther out of town that required more upkeep and longer commutes. Employers rewarded stellar employees with raises and promotions (thus, more responsibility and more work), not with, say, an extra month of vacation time.

'In the past, people overworked, but commonly because they were forced by poverty or impelled by a sense of duty,' sociologist George Watson wrote in the Wilson Quarterly in the early 1990s. 'Now work can be a neurotic addiction. 'Workaholic' is a 20th century word, one suspects, because it is a 20th century type.'

A few years ago, Mary Lou Quinlan quit her high-stress job as a Manhattan advertising executive, and then found herself writing a book, taking to the speaking circuit and launching a marketing company.

That's a break?

'We tend to fill the 'off time' with work time, with worries that surely don't leave us feeling relaxed, because we just aren't comfortable doing that,' says Quinlan, author of 'Time Off for Good Behavior.' 'We just inflict more to-dos on any open time.'

Julia Cameron, author of 'The Artist's Way' series of books, has noted something similar in her 12-week workshops for people who want to restore a sense of creativity to their lives. The problem, she says, is that when she assigns them the task of doing nothing for a while, they balk.

'What I find is that there is not so much the lack of time as there is the misuse of time,' she says. 'We have an avoidance syndrome, in that we avoid what we really want to do, fill it with other things and then say we don't have enough time.'

Schor, the Boston College professor, summed up the zeitgeist in her book by theorizing that 'enough' would always be a relative term. Once you had cable and a nice television, the number of cable channels proliferated, high-definition broadcasts became the norm and then plasma flat screens. More choices, more new things to buy, more work required to keep up. Cell phones and the Internet allowed office workers to work from home, but they also allowed employers to call on employees when they were at the beach or expect them to finish up that report over the weekend.

Forty years ago, there were three television networks, no such thing as cable. No Walkmans, iPods or DVDs. You saw 'The Sound of Music' at the movies or you missed it. There was no Internet.

In the evenings, there was Johnny Carson and the late show and then, this is hard to believe, kids, television stations went off. Late in the night, there were only a few disembodied voices on radio stations broadcasting through the static.

Now there are 75 million channels on premium cable that you have to watch in high def. The kid comes in and wants to do some PlayStation thing with guns going off. Who sits and talks anymore? People feel more alienated. Doctors write prescriptions for depression every day. You get on the Metro, every third person has an iPod stuck in his ears. How could you talk with somebody if you wanted to?

If all of that is not work, it's becoming clear that it's not leisure, either.

The FWI study found that what was actually troubling to most Americans was the lack of focus, people simply can't concentrate because of the deluge of sensory input from all this new media, the ever-mushrooming e-mail in-box, the ringing cell, the buzzing BlackBerry, the latest news flash on cable about a murder case in California or a bombing in Baghdad. That's not going to change.

'When there was no television, when books were more expensive and less plentiful, people were more likely better conversationalists with smaller numbers of people,' says Davis, the AEI scholar. 'They couldn't call long distance. Compared to now, [the new studies] point out there are benefits to life that show up as more activities, but there is something that has been lost there as well.'

Lost, perhaps, is that sense of welcome solitude, the sense of intimacy with the lone voice on the radio in the long darkness of the American night. We see more people doing more things all the time, and yet there is no solace. Only jangled nerves and a sense of approaching daylight and the endless day ahead.
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