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Why Are We So Busy? - The New Yorker


Elizabeth Kolbert Why Are We So Busy The New Yorker

Source: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/bo...

Eighty years after Keynes first composed “Economic Possibilities,” a pair of Italian economists, Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga, got to chatting about it. How could “a man of Keynes’s intelligence,” they wondered, have been “so right in predicting a future of economic growth and improving living standards” and so wrong about the future of leisure? They decided to pose this question to colleagues in Europe and the United States. Perhaps some of those they asked were women; in any event, all those who responded were men. The result, “Revisiting Keynes” (2008), suggests that Nobel Prize-winning economists, too, are perplexed by “the overwhelm.”

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Why is time pressure increasing?

With the question of her own leisure left unresolved, Schulte decides to head to Paris for the annual meeting of the International Association for Time Use Research. (“There’s great interest in trying to understand why time pressure is increasing,” a sociologist from Oxford tells her. “This is the hot topic in time research right now.”) She visits the Yale Stress Center, in New Haven; meets with overstressed mothers in Portland, Oregon; and sits in on a focus group in Fargo, North Dakota. “Life is stressful in Fargo,” the organizer of the group says. Ostensibly in an effort to reduce her own stress, Schulte attends a trapeze academy and leaps off a platform twenty feet high. Along the way, she discusses various possible explanations for what she likes to call “the overwhelm,” as if it were something outside of us, like the Arctic or the Amazon.

One theory she entertains early on is that busyness has acquired social status. The busier you are the more important you seem; thus, people compete to be—or, at least, to appear to be—harried. A researcher she consults at the University of North Dakota, Ann Burnett, has collected five decades’ worth of holiday letters and found that they’ve come to dwell less and less on the blessings of the season and more and more on how jam-packed the previous year has been. Based on this archive, Burnett has concluded that keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to outschedule them. (In one recent letter, a mother boasts of schlepping her kids to so many activities that she drives “a hundred miles a day.”) “There’s a real ‘busier than thou’ attitude,” Burnett says.

A second theory that Schulte considers is that “the overwhelm” is a function not so much of how many things Americans have to do but of how much time they spend thinking about how many things they have to do. A doctor who’s running through the list of groceries she needs to pick up on the way home is not actually any busier than one who’s concentrating on the task at hand, but she may feel more beleaguered. Conversely, a lawyer playing with his kids is technically at leisure, but if all the while he’s checking his phone for texts from the office he may feel that he hasn’t had any time off. Schulte terms this the “mental tape-loop phenomenon,” and she argues that it’s sapping our precious energies, so that we can’t even “decide what to think about, worrying about home stuff at work and work stuff at home.”

But neither of these explanations fully satisfies Schulte, and she keeps on searching. After a while, she fixes on the same culprit so many women before her have: men. Most American women today work; more than two-thirds of mothers with school-age kids are employed outside the home. Many now outearn their husbands; in dual-income couples, about a third of wives are better paid than their spouses. Even so, studies show, women do the lion’s—or, better yet, the lioness’s—share of the housework: between seventy and eighty per cent. If they have children, the bulk of the child care also falls to them. “Though men today certainly spend more time caring for their children and doing more chores,” Schulte writes, “it is still about half of what women routinely do.” Small wonder, she concludes, that women are more likely than men to report “chronic stress and the feeling that life is out of control.”

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