Work and “Time Poverty”

Credit to the Economist for this cool image.

Last August we discussed a Gallup Poll that determined the obvious: we work more than we’re technically “supposed” to work. The study found based on a summary of the 2013-2014 numbers that Americans are more likely to work an average of forty-seven hours a week instead of the forty hours that is more commonly associated with full time jobs.

Seven hours might not sound like a lot in isolation but per month that means people are losing days worth of their own time. Over the course of year it can take away months from people and the free time they allegedly should have.

Matt Saccaro of Slate has decided to add to this lack of free time in America by citing the amount of time folks are on smartphones (but I can’t find the actual study anywhere and it applies to Britain so I don’t see how it’s relevant anyhow).

A good point made by the people who (allegedly) did the study was that smartphones make it hard for us to disconnect from work. That seems right to me, though the idea that smartphones cause an increase in our work hours would seem hard to gauge. What counts? Our emails can be for fun as well as work, right? Unless people had a work-only email, that may be a good way to minimize that particular confounding factor.

Regardless it’s certainly plausible that smartphones and similar advances in technology have only aided the culture of work and busyness even though it was supposed to simplify tasks and give us less to do. Instead, we seem more often to be doing a lot more. But that’s just my anecdotal experience and what makes sense to me on an intuitive level. I hope this isn’t a wider trend but I worry that it is indeed a larger problem.

An Economist article called In Search of Lost Time: Why is Everyone So Busy? makes many interesting points related to the topic of “time poverty” and work.

Let’s look at the best case scenario for those who think work isn’t a problem in modern day society in relation to how much time it takes up in our lives. They might point to this study which claims that leisure has actually gotten better in the last forty years. But the response to this best case is scenario: What if people perceive things differently?

As the article explains:

The relationship between time, money and anxiety is something Gary S. Becker noticed in America’s post-war boom years. Though economic progress and higher wages had raised everyone’s standard of living, the hours of “free” time Americans had been promised had come to naught. “If anything, time is used more carefully today than a century ago,” he noted in 1965.

He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

So maybe in real terms we have more leisure time but what if folks doing these ordinarily leisurely activities are checking their work-only emails, having their minds race about the previous work day, dreading the end of the weekend, putting their work clothes in the laundry for use in another few days, etc. Aren’t all of these once leisurely activities permeated to some extent by work? And even if not they’ve certainly been influenced by them if we’re spending more time thinking about work and worrying what sort of person we are just because we’re sitting back and relaxing.

But, in my research, I found two other follow-up studies done that challenge this notion that our leisure time has increased. One study by Valerie Ramey at the University of California found that, “leisure has increased a more modest 1-4 hours for men and 3-5 hours for women” as opposed to the 6-9 hours that the first study claimed.

A second study (helpfully summarized here) asserts that no significant change has happened in the amount of leisure we do or do not have in the last century.

Now, I’m not saying that if we had more leisure I’d be unhappy. That would of course be a good thing if even just Ramey’s study was right that we have increased in labor, just not as much as the first study would tell us. This obviously would be good news to slacker in today’s society.

But the problem (besides the fact that there seems to be some category errors in the first study as well as inconsistent uses of definitions, etc.) is that even if it’s true that we have more leisure time it doesn’t seem like people are actually using it. And if folks aren’t actually perceiving themselves as having more leisure time, have more time at work and are (arguably) contributing to this via the technology all around them then how can it really matter?

Part of the problem embedded in all of these things is people’s obsession with multitasking.

By this I mean the process of trying to do many different things and treat them as if they are one thing. So when I have a bunch of tabs on my browser and a few are for this purpose and a few are for another but I act as if I’m fulfilling both purposes at once then I’m engaging in multitasking. Often you can get a bit of a rush from doing this (or at least I do) because you feel like you’re doing a lot more. But eventually this rush wears off and you might just end up feeling more stressed than anything else. This is especially true if the things in question take a while or they are both mentally intensive processes that are probably best not doing at the same time.

The Economist article speaks to this problem:

New technologies such as e-mail and smartphones exacerbate this impatience and anxiety. E-mail etiquette often necessitates a response within 24 hours, with the general understanding that sooner is better. Managing this constant and mounting demand often involves switching tasks or multi-tasking, and the job never quite feels done. “Multi-tasking is what makes us feel pressed for time,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity,” she adds

There’s also another interesting development that this article notes tthat the professional class seems to work more than the lower class does. Steven E. Landsburg of Slate explains:

About 10 percent of us are stuck in 1965, leisurewise. At the opposite extreme, 10 percent of us have gained a staggering 14 hours a week or more. (Once again, your gains are measured in comparison to a person who, in 1965, had the same characteristics that you have today.) By and large, the biggest leisure gains have gone precisely to those with the most stagnant incomes—that is, the least skilled and the least educated. And conversely, the smallest leisure gains have been concentrated among the most educated, the same group that’s had the biggest gains in income.

Of course, he’s relying on the already flawed first study we looked at but even if we get rid of that this trend appears to be pretty interesting to at least hypothetically consider if nothing else.

The Economist talks about this trend too:

But nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. Few would think of sparing time for nine holes of golf, much less 18. …  And lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.

A Harvard Business School survey of 1,000 professionals found that 94% worked at least 50 hours a week, and almost half worked more than 65 hours.

Other research shows that the share of college-educated American men regularly working more than 50 hours a week rose from 24% in 1979 to 28% in 2006. According to a recent survey, 60% of those who use smartphones are connected to work for 13.5 hours or more a day. European labour laws rein in overwork, but in Britain four in ten managers, victims of what was once known as “the American disease”, say they put in more than 60 hours a week. It is no longer shameful to be seen swotting.

This doesn’t seem much higher than the average American in the Gallup poll, so, again, I’m not sure how legitimate this phenomenon actually is. But it’s still worth keeping in mind that even if it’s true that leisure time has increased for the poor and decreased for the rich (tears are running down my face for them, I assure you) the sort of “leisure” that the poor have, it may be nothing to celebrate.

Part of that is because some of this leisure time may be involuntary due to the restructuring of the job market and the way this has affected folks without college degrees. Sure, you may not be at your job while you’re unemployed but if you’ve got car loans to pay or insurance fees or anything else then most of your time is going to revolve around getting one and I’m not sure that’s very enviable.

The Economist article points out that higher paid people may also be more likely to enjoy their job and thus commit to it harder and for more hours than someone who is lower class and less likely to be as engaged with their job. This seems plausible to me although even if it’s true that people enjoy their jobs to the extent that they’re working around 50 hours a week this probably means their social life (to the extent they even have one and value such a thing) would take a nasty hit. So it’s not like there aren’t any tradeoffs to being a workaholic.

Let’s wrap up by looking at some choice last parts of the Salon article on free time we discussed earlier:

How did it come to this?

“Companies, of course, want to maximize the amount of time each employees spends doing work because they more work they do, the more profitable they are potentially,” said [Dan] Schawbel, [founder of WorkplaceTrends]. “It’s in the companies’ best interest to have employees work longer hours for the same pay and workers are competing for promotions and salary increases so they are at a disadvantage if they put less time in. People almost feel like they have to work longer hours in order to build a stronger career at the cost of their personal lives.”

“The solution is for managers and employees to agree on a specific time, based on the role, that they can stop answering emails or phone calls. For instance, they could agree that after 6 PM, the business phone gets turned off, leaving only the personal phone on,” said Schawbel.

This gets both the best interests of the company and the solution wrong, which is impressive…but still wrong.

It actually isn’t in the best interest of the company to have employees work longer hours. As has been pointed out before more hours doesn’t mean more work and this has been pointed time after time after time after time after…well…you get the point.

And no, the solution isn’t for managers and employees to try to get together. You’re not likely to find a boss who is actually going to submit to the demands of a few disgruntled workers and even if you do it’s more of a “privilege” than a right given the boss-worker relationship.

Oh, one more thing:

Workplace flexibility programs, too, could help workers. The Washington Post reported an increase in worker happiness when employers adopted such programs, but this solution doesn’t address the overall increase in hours.

Do flexibility programs help?

I’ll leave you on a bit of a cliffhanger and say that we’ll tackle this next time…

3 thoughts on “Work and “Time Poverty”

  1. Pingback: Work so "Flexible" it'll Break your Back - Abolish Work

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