In an article on social capital in the autumn issue of the RSA journal, Professor Mario Luis Small, of the University of Chicago, wrote:
“Together with my research assistants, I spent six years interviewing a diverse set of mothers of young children in New York City. They were black, white and Latina; affluent, middle-class and poor, doctors, secretaries, dancers, teachers, welfare recipients and everything in between. Yet in spite of their diverse lives, the full span of their experiences with respect to time commitments only ranged from ‘too busy’ to ‘overwhelmed’. Sociologist Suzanne Bainchi and her colleagues analysed decades’ worth of US data and confirmed that parents are much busier on average than they were a generation ago. Who has time to start a bowling league?”
This confirms what many of us, I suspect, experience ourselves, as well as a commonplace about the pace of modern life. It has become a social norm to be ‘too busy’. (If you want to test this, attempt transgression: next time someone asks how you’re doing, see what happens if, rather than the usual “Oh, you know, not too bad, busy!”, you try “Yup, not bad, not too much on at the moment, trying not to get too much done”.)
What on earth is going on?
At a very simple level, it’s an equation: there are Things to Do, or Tasks; and there is Time Available. The Time Available is completely fixed in the short term: there may appear to be some short term flexibility, if you find yourself imagining that you might sleep a little less in order to make more time available, but sleep, in this equation, is just another Task.
In the longer term there is some flexibility, because for the normal human the ‘longer term’ translates into ‘how long do you live’. For all of us, the days are the same length; but the total number of days we get varies. Those of us that live longer get more time to do Tasks.
What are the Tasks? There are many. There are basics like eat and sleep and clean yourself and have sex. There are Tasks like work and travel, finding and maintaining a home, buying food and clothes. There’s leisure and television, socialising and going on holiday, looking after your family and walking the dog, writing books and seeing your shrink and self-actualising.
There is spectrum describing the extent to which these Tasks are mandatory. Eating and sleeping, obviously, are quite important, and go too long without them and you’re soon in trouble. Leaving the maintenance of your home until tomorrow rather than doing it today is no problem, but leave it too long and things could get tricky. Go ages without participating in your favourite leisure activity and, well, you might get a sense of annoyance or disappointment, but it’s not much worse than that.
Along another dimension, any given task can take more or less time. You can eat in 5 minutes, or an hour: you can sleep for 6 hours or 8 hours or 10 hours; you can holiday for a weekend or a week.
And, of course, it’s sometimes possible to do more than one Task at once: eat and watch television, work and socialise, paint and have sex. There are limits, of course, and there’s a lot of personal preference at play here.
So whither the sense of being ‘too busy’ or ‘overwhelmed’? Well, if we stick for a moment to the short term situation of day to day life in which Time Available is fixed, then there are two possibilities:
• there are too many Tasks to be done
• the Tasks take too long
The latter of these seems odd. I thought everything was supposed to be becoming more efficient? Washing machines and microwaves, ready-made meals and package holidays, multi-function handheld devices and on-line shopping. All of these are quicker than the alternative, aren’t they?
So it’s something to do with how much we’re trying to get done, how many Tasks there are.
There’s an important distributional issue here that we mustn’t forget. I suspect that not everyone is ‘overwhelmed’, despite Professor Small’s assertion. Note, for example, that his research was conducted in New York City, which is hardly the most laid-back city in the world; and I’m writing this in London, which undoubtedly has a high pace. Perhaps those living in rural locations; or people who have retired, or people who smoke dope, or people adopting ‘alternative’ lifestyles or who appear on television programmes about moving to live in a refurbished gite do not experience the same kind of time poverty that seems to affect so many of the rest of us.
On the assumption, however, that a significant proportion of the population do share this experience, then I have two further questions.
Firstly, what’s the cost? Is there, actually, a problem here? Surely busy is better than bored?
It’s a matter of balance. If we try to pack too much in, then all sorts of negatives progressively take place. We become stressed and imperil our physical and mental health. We pay insufficient attention to our loved ones. We do not participate in bowling clubs, or their equivalent, and our neighbourhoods become dormitories or ghost towns. We seek compensation in ever more thrilling ways, most of which are more socially and environmentally damaging. We have no time to sit and stare. I’m not sure I can ‘prove’ it, but I’m pretty sure that sustained time poverty is a Bad Thing.
So, and secondly, what’s the benefit? And for whom?
I may get the feeling of accomplishment when I have, during the course of a day, done a million and one things, but it’s short-lived because a further million and two things remain to be done tomorrow. And I may benefit in terms of the myriad of individual satisfactions from each individual Task – hmm, nice bit of quality time with the children, nice moment at work, nice mouthful of food I just had – but in general, and without getting too utilitarian about it, it doesn’t seem to stack up.
The principal beneficiaries of all this mad running around we’re doing would appear to be (a) the entities for whom we work, and (b) the entities that sell us things. Oh! And look! They’re the same entities!
Marx got there first, of course, and Ivan Illich unpacked it properly, but our chronic and increasingly acute time poverty is the outcome of the operation of capitalism and the interests of capital. The nature, number, scale and pace of Tasks is ever more determined by the requirements of salaried work (and all the shadow work that goes with it) and the social obligations of the conspicuous consumption of positional goods and services. Civic or personal or vernacular control over time is being lost.
Time use is as much part of the hedonic treadmill as consumption itself. If we want to tackle the various ills with which it is associated, we have to get off; or, at the very least, slow down.
Slow down, do less. Gosh, it’s almost as scary as “Buy less”. No wonder it’s so hard. No wonder so many of us complain but don’t do anything about it.
But you’ve had enough, haven’t you? All this running around like a blue-arsed fly… We’ve all had enough.
Ironic close out? There’s already a movement trying to make this kind of argument and to do something about it. It’s called the ‘slow’ movement.
But it’s progressing too slowly…