The Myth That Americans Are Busier Than Ever

"How did we get so busy?" the New Yorker asks. Let's define busy. And, while we're at it, let's define we, too.
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Feeling harried? Swamped? Overwhelmed? Lucky you. It is, in many ways, a privilege to feel busy in America.

Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker essay "No Time," is built around an old essay and a new book about the future of busy-ness and leisure. The old essay, by the economist John Maynard Keynes, predicted that by the mid-21st century, citizens of advanced economies would scarcely have to work, thanks to technological advancements. The new book, Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, responds to Keynes some 90 years later by explaining just how poorly his prediction has panned out. Instead of having an abundance of time, we are more starved for leisure than ever.

For much of the essay, this premise survives unchallenged. Obviously, we're working more than ever, because it feels like we are. Right?

Actually, no, we're not. As a country, we're working less than we did in the 1960s and 1980s and considerably less than we did in the agrarian-industrial economy when Keynes foresaw a future of leisure. It's not until the end of Kolbert's essay that the reader steals a glimpse of the cold hard statistical truth: Every advanced economy in the world is working considerably fewer hours on average than it used to.

Even in America, which looks like an industrious outlier compared to Europe, we work less, both at the office and at home. Between 1965 and 2011, time spent on housework and childcare for women declined by 35 percent (or 15 hours each week), thanks to dishwashers, TVs, and other appliances that assist the work of stay-at-home parents.

The trouble with the graph above, however, is that it displays America as a monolith, when the experience of individual Americans is anything but. For many Americans, particularly less-educated men and women, Keynes' crystal ball has correctly foretold a future of historically high leisure time. But single parents in the U.S. report the most hours worked and severe time shortage in the developed world, and higher-educated men and women are actually working more than they were 50 years, bucking the global trend. Economists call this the "leisure gap," and it's a mirror reflection of the income gap. When it comes to leisure, the rich have less, and the poor have more. Here's how that leisure gap has evolved over time:

This is an important graph to study for at least two reasons. First it shows just how fragmented America's leisure experience is (and this is only dividing the country by one variable). Second, it reveals the potential biases of the authors. It's appropriate that both Brigid Schulte and Elizabeth Kolbert are successful working moms, since this category of workers has seen its leisure time fall despite rising incomes. Since 1950, young married women's work hours have tripled while married men's hours have declined, according to the Philadelphia Fed. The well-educated rich, married, working mother is overwhelmed. But there are a lot of Americans who are neither well-educated, nor rich, nor working, nor parents. For them, there are probably more pressing concerns than belonging to (in the words of Swedish economist Staffan Linder) a "Harried Leisure Class."

Even among the HLC,  there isn't much evidence in the time-use survey data to suggest that we spend considerably more time on work and chores than we used to. So why do we feel busier? Here are some pet theories (you should offer your own below):

  1. The irony of abundance. Keynes predicted that the age of abundance would make us all relax, because it would be easier to get everything we need, like food, clothes, and entertainment. But maybe knowing that there are 10 great TV shows you should watch, nine important books to read, eight bourgeois skills your child hasn't mastered, seven ways you're exercising wrong, six ways you haven't sufficiently taken advantage of the city, etc., fosters a kind of metastasized paradox of choice, a perma-FOMO. Knowing exactly what we're missing out makes us feel guilty or anxious about the limits of our time and our capacity to use it effectively.
  2. The fluidness of work and leisure. The idea that work begins and ends at the office is intuitively wrong. We laugh at animal pictures on our work computers, and we answer emails on our couches in front of the TV. On the one hand, flexibility is nice. On the other, blending work and leisure creates an always-on expectation that makes it hard for white-collar workers to escape the shadow of work responsibilities.
  3. The curse of wealth. Linder, who coined the term "harried leisure class," says that rich people feel more anxious because they feel more compelled to maximize their free time. The idea is that rich people have a real, even rational, sense that their time is more valuable—in the non-spiritual sense, of course—so that their wasted time feels more wasteful. If this is right, it suggests that wealth buys an expectation to maximize productivity leisure time. Which ultimately means that wealth buys anxiety. Ick.
  4. The "joy" of work. "High pay is highly rewarding," Kolbert writes, and in a winner-take-all economy, we're motivated to put in extra-long hours to, well, win. Maybe people who don't like leisure are richer in the first place because many of them just like working more, and a permanent sense of busy-ness is the psychological price they agree to pay.

The upshot is that there are plenty of psychological and social explanations for our pervasive busy feelings, and the folks most likely to read The New Yorker are probably caught in this hedonic treadmill of long hours and never-ending anxieties. But don't confuse that rarified rat race among the privileged with the bigger picture. There is little evidence that America, as a country, is working more. Many of us—perhaps most of us—enjoy downtime that would look luxurious to a mid-century time-traveler.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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