Why Only Yuppies Feel Busy: An Economic Theory

A University of Texas economist argues that those who can afford to do everything are stressed because they can never have the time to do it all. 


If the collective obsessions of the Internet have confirmed anything lately, it's that a thick slice of America feels very, very busy. First, Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," sucked the world into a conversation about just how hard it is to balance a high-powered career with family. Then came Tim Kreider's cri de calm, "The Busy Trap." We all need to stop feeling so self-satisfied over our packed schedules and enjoy a little indolence, Kreider argued. Busy chatter ensued.

I'm inclined to believe that busyness is a sincere problem -- especially in the case of professionals who would just like to see their children once in a blue moon. But late last week, I stumbled onto a research paper that added a new wrinkle to the issue for me. Its title: "Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?"

On the off chance you're wondering, "kvetch" is the Yiddish word for complain. You can probably sense where this is leading.

Across the world, it seems, wealthier people are much more likely to complain -- or kvetch, if you will -- about being busy than the poor. It's not simply that the well-to-do work more, although that's part of it, says Daniel Hamermesh, the University of Texas economist who co-authored the 2005 study with a former graduate student. It turns out that if you hold the hours people spend at their jobs and on household chores constant, individuals who bring home bigger paychecks still feel more stressed for time. Increase a husband's income, and his wife begins to feel busier.

Hamermesh reached his conclusions by analyzing time-use surveys from the United States, Germany, Australia, and South Korea. The results were fairly consistent across international borders, although they varied a bit in South Korea, he says. In general, the richer a survey taker was, the more they kvetched about their lack of time. Women, meanwhile, kvetched more than men. And although Hamermish is hesitant to make cross cultural comparisons, he says that Americans appeared to be the "world champions" of kvetching

All of this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one of the perks of being rich is that you can afford to pay people to take care of life's necessities in order to free up more time for life's pleasures. A nurse and a Google engineer might work the same hours. But the engineer can afford a babysitter and maid. 

Nice in theory. But in practice, hiring help only makes a marginal difference, Hamermesh says. "You can't pay somebody to sleep for you," he explains. "You can't pay somebody to read Proust for you. Or go to the opera, or go to the movies, or go to a ballgame." And that's where a bit of psychology comes into play.

We all live on two things: time and money. And people who have extra income don't get much, if any, extra time to spend it. As a result, Hamermesh argues, each of their hours seems more valuable, and they feel the clock ticking away more acutely. Much the way it's more stressful to order dinner from a menu with 100 items than 10, choosing between a night at the symphony, seats at the hot new play, or tickets to Woody Allen's latest flick is in some senses more stressful than knowing you'll have to save money by staying in for the evening. There's a lot the rich could be doing and too few hours to do it all. 

That isn't to say the rich are necessarily more stressed overall. While the poor are less likely to complain about a lack of time, they are much more likely to complain about a lack of money. "One of them is always going to be scarce for you. If you're rich, it's time that's scarce. If you're poor, it's the money that's scarce," Hamermesh says.

So should we all feel guilty about our kvetching? Not necessarily -- as long as you remember that, in the scheme of things, being busy is a nice problem to afford.