Where is Our Excess Leisure Time?
In 1930, celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes published the essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren wherein he predicted that in 100 years the economy would become so productive due to increases in technology that the average worker would hardly need to work at all. He predicted that a major problem would be that everyone would have so much leisure time that we would struggle to find purpose for our lives with so little work.
Keynes was right that the world economy would become massively productive as compared to 1930. He was also right that our standard of living would explode. We enjoy conveniences that he could have hardly imagined in 1930.
He was wrong about our excess leisure time. Incongruously, we seem to have less leisure as everything seems to move at us faster-and-faster. We have more and more but yet also less and less.
This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1951 the philosopher Alan Watts wrote in his outstanding book The Wisdom of insecurity the following:
Science and industry have so increased both the tempo and the violence of living that our packages seem to come apart faster and faster every day.
There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down—traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief.
As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.
What was true in 1951 is even more apropos’s now.
Faster and Faster
At Trader Joe’s this past weekend when it was time to pay I whipped out my iPhone, double-clicked a button, the phone recognized my face and then I paid for my groceries using Apple Pay merely tapping the phone against the keypad. “Ching” and I was done. So fast. So efficient. My checker said “wow, bro, you’re living in the future.” He then pulled out his flip phone circa 2003 and said “I just have this fossil, but what I lose in terms of connectivity with the world I gain in extra peace.” So true. So true.
There is good evidence that the pace of our lives has been accelerating. While the internet, email, social media and smartphones have played a huge part in the acceleration, our lives have been accelerating for millennia. Here’s a great chart from the book Scale by Geoffrey West:
It was 9 million years between our ancestors using tools to figuring out how to use fire. Then nearly another million years until we started wearing clothes. It was thousands of years between the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. But only hundreds of years between the scientific revolution and industrial revolution.
The time between the agricultural revolution and the printing press was about 10,000 years, but only about 500 years between the printing press and the computer age. A mere 30 years separated the computer age and the information age. The first plane wasn’t flown until 1903 and then we walked on the moon a mere 67 years later!
It used to be that more than one major innovation didn’t occur in a single human lifetime. Generations could live basically the same way. Now, major innovation paradigms occur within decades. Even my children ages 17 and 20 can look back on their lives and see the major differences of having just a cell phone vs. having the entire internet in their pockets.
A further example: in my lifetime I’ve consumed music on vinyl albums, cassette, CD, digital downloads through iTunes and now through a subscription on Spotify where I have access to pretty much any song I want at anytime for a monthly fee (wow). Each of these innovations occurred quicker than the prior ones. Similarly, TV has moved from a few channels broadcast to everyone, to hundreds of cable channels, VCRs, DVDs, DVRs and now on demand streaming.
All these innovations have both made our lives more convenient but also fundamentally changed the speed at which we live. We wait less and less for things. We are rarely bored – we can always find distraction. There’s never “nothing to watch on TV.”
The very fabric of our socioeconomic lives is speeding up. We are constantly in contact with each other and nearly always available. We text each other and expect instant responses. We are drowning in piles of email constantly vying for our attention and quick response. Internet orders that took a week or more dropped to guaranteed shipping in two days and now many orders are next day shipping (even when you don’t ask for it). I now get Amazon packages delivered on Sunday (by postal workers on contract working overtime!). Major metropolitan areas are starting to enjoy same day shipping. Uber eats and the like allows us to order fast delivery service from basically any restaurant.
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.“
-Edna St. Vincent Millay
More and More
The amount of information has exploded. The number of photographs taken per year is a good example. In 2000, 80 Billion photos were taken. In 2010 it was about 350 Billion. Last year the number is estimated at 1.5 Trillion!
According to Forbes, over 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years! And the amount of data being produced is accelerating. Here’s how much data is being created every minute on average in 2019 on various platforms:
Due to self-publishing, even the number of books published each year is increasing. To keep up with the physical books being published each year, you’d have to travel 90mph.
We are drowning in information. Its just not possible to keep up.
How To Combat Everything Speeding Up
Many aspects of the acceleration of time are not possible to resist. As our society speeds up it will take us with it to some extent. We do have some control, however, over the speed of our own lives.
Here’s some advice on slowing things back down and taking control:
- Find your life’s purpose. Figure out what’s important. Focus on those things. Ignore and say “no” to those things not in alignment with your purpose and priorities. Here’s a great article by Clayton Christensen on finding your life’s purpose: How Will You Measure Your Life. A great book on focusing on what is essential and saying “no” to nonessential things is: Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less
- Eschew social media. Its not making you happy – its making you less happy and feel like its harder to keep up. It is part of the problem. Like my Trader Joe’s cashier said, what you lose in connectivity you will gain in peace. Read More: Why Facebook and other Social Media Makes you Less Happy
- Consider reading weekly or monthly periodicals to stay on top of the news rather than daily or hourly sources. There is soooooo much information – allow a weekly publication curate what is important for you. Weekly examples are The Economist, Bloomberg Magazine, the Week, etc. Similarly, consider using a subscription service like Quartz or Axios to update you on what’s important without feeling like you have to plow through newspapers everyday or follow a lot of people on social media.
- Spend more time in nature. Nature moves at its own pace. This evening, after work or dinner or dealing with whatever we deal with, change into some shorts and a T-shirt, then sit cross legged under a tree in your yard for 10 minutes without your phone. Can you imagine what that would be like?
- Instead of social media or TV, read more – it may increase your happiness and may lead to you living longer. Sitting and reading is a slower activity than being online or watching TV. It’s something we’ve done for over 500 years as a species.
- Establish hours that you don’t use electronics
- Put “do not disturb” on your phone and use it often (especially while driving). Turn off notifications on your computer.
- Stop looking at your investment portfolio!!
- Don’t confuse information with wisdom