Why Do We Lead Such Frenzied Lives?

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Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here. His most recent book is “An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces” (Anthem Press, 2008).

Like hamsters on an exercise wheel, many of us are racing about but getting nowhere. I recently read Ann Jones’s “After I Lived in Norway, America Felt Backward. Here’s Why.” In it she writes:

In the United States, full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20 percent clocking more than 60. These people [Norwegians], on the other hand, worked only about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the workday, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three during the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest, a swim with the kids, or a beer with friends—which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs. . . .

Jones’s essay is like Michael Moore’s new film “Where to Invade Next” in that both contrast unfavorably certain U.S. practices, including our more frenzied lifestyle, with that of Europeans. As one review notes, the film depicts Moore in Italy learning about Italians’ “work-life balance and their almost sacred preservation of leisure time. We learn that the Italians get 30 days of paid vacation a year, with five months of mandatory maternity leave; the days off that they don’t use in any given year roll over to the next. . . . He watches as workers at a Bugatti factory head off for a two-hour lunch, many of them going home for a leisurely home-cooked meal with their families.”

Contrast this two-hour-leisurely-lunch approach with the hectic lives of many U.S. families where both parents work at least five days a week with not much vacation, and in addition drive their kids all around to various places from their nursery school and play-date years to their later extra-curricular school activities. Even among many of my fellow retirees, I hear the familiar complaint—or is it a boast?—“I’m busier than ever.”

Busier than ever? How can that be? In a 2014 New Yorker essay entitled “No Time,” Elizabeth Colbert cites a 1928 prediction by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes: By 2028 people in the United States and Europe would only work about three hours a day. The rest of Colbert’s article examines why Keynes was wrong. She provides no one conclusive answer, but many.

A few that she offers come from Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte, who thought her own life was “scattered, fragmented, and exhausting.” Schulte suggests that people are busier than they need to be because, as Colbert writes, “Busyness has acquired social status. The busier you are the more important you seem.” Schulte also observes that it is women that are the most frenzied because many mothers work and still do most of the parenting and other household chores.

Another work cited by Colbert is Revisiting Keynes (2008), a collection edited by two Italian economists. She points out that “several contributors . . . attribute Keynes’s error to a misreading of human nature.”

Keynes assumed that people work in order to earn enough to buy what they need. And so, he reasoned, as incomes rose, those needs could be fulfilled in ever fewer hours. Workers would knock off earlier and earlier, until eventually they’d be going home by lunchtime.”

But that isn’t what people are like. Instead of quitting early, they find new things to need. Many of the new things they’ve found weren’t even around when Keynes was writing—laptops, microwaves, Xboxes, smartphones, smart watches, smart refrigerators, Prada totes, True Religion jeans, battery-powered meat thermometers . . . .

Among the book’s contributors is Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who indicates that Americans today work more than Europeans—on average about 140 more hours a year than the English and 300 more than the French—and that Europeans, as Colbert paraphrases him, “will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and to buy more stuff.”

After reading Colbert’s essay and thinking about Stiglitz ’s prediction, I recalled a few passages I had once read of Karl Marx. They were from two of his early writings, when he was still in his twenties, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology (1845).

In the Manuscripts we read a prophetic description of modern capitalist advertising:

Every product is a bait with which to seduce away the other’s very being, his money; every real and possible need is a weakness which will lead the fly to the glue-pot. . . . Every need is an opportunity to approach one’s neighbour under the guise of the utmost amiability and to say to him: Dear friend, I give you what you need, but you know the conditio sine qua non; you know the ink in which you have to sign yourself over to me; in providing for your pleasure, I fleece you.

Although Marx was wrong about many things, he correctly perceived that evolving technology would enable future humans to produce everything they did in his day in far fewer hours—consider, for example, the greater abundance of food produced today in the USA as compared to Marx’s time, and with a much smaller percentage of farmers.

The young Marx was more humanistic and focused on the dehumanizing aspects of labor than he would be later. In the Manuscripts he noted that in his work the individual “does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. . . . His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.”

Because of this alienation of labor under capitalism—of course, it was worse in Marx’s day, but even at present how many people love their jobs?—communism for the young Marx was more about ending alienated labor than about insuring income equality. In the German Ideology he writes that man’s labor under capitalism “enslaves him instead of being controlled by him,” but under fully developed communism man would have more leisure and “work” would be more humanistic. Under capitalism “each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape . . . . if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow . . . just as I have a mind [to].”

Of course, Marx was wrong about history evolving from capitalism into a utopian communist society—I made numerous trips to the old Soviet Union from the late 1970s until its collapse in 1991 and saw for myself how miserable life was under a government that proclaimed it was well on its way to achieving Marx’s dream. And like Keynes, Marx underestimated how people’s needs would continually expand, how so many would choose more goods (and services) rather than more leisure.

But make no mistake. As Stiglitz indicated, we do have a choice. Like many Europeans, we could work less; we could choose less frantic lifestyles. But only at the cost of spending less. Some might argue that many poorer people have little choice but to work long hours, maybe even two jobs. Stiglitz himself has forcefully criticized growing inequality. But, as Colbert points out, “As the income gap in the U.S. has widened, it’s actually lower-wage workers who have ended up with the most leisure. And it’s high earners who report feeling the most time pressure.”

It’s the American way to desire a bigger house for one’s family, a newer car, the latest smart phone or other new electronic gadget. Three decades ago Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, and today between cable television, portable devices, and Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services we have more than enough passive entertainment to last us several lifetimes. But to pay for such entertainment, we need money, and for money most of us must sacrifice leisure for work—and then expend more leisure time trying to figure out what entertainment to select from the overwhelming abundance of choices we have.

Although he died almost four decades ago, the economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher perceived why we were already leading frenzied lives. He realized that modern capitalism, advertising, and our consumer culture (see here for more on it) had greatly increased our “needs.” But influenced by Buddhist thought, he believed that “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. . . . Every increase of needs tends to increase one's dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control.” He recommended “resisting the temptation of letting our luxuries become needs; and perhaps . . . even scrutinizing our needs to see if they cannot be simplified and reduced.”

Schumacher was most concerned about the negative environmental impact of ever-increasing “wants,” but also wrote that “more education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.” (See here for more on Schumacher and the source of above quotes.) But neither our educational system nor our consumer culture cares about wisdom. Do any of the advertisers who pay $5 million for a 30-second spot during the 2016 Super Bowl care about whether increasing our needs is wise? U. S. humorist Dave Barry once said: “Television's message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.” Our consumer culture and our economy depend on days like Black Friday.

Thus, we increase our “needs” because we are unwise, and our increased “needs” contribute to our hectic lives. And the consumer culture that surrounds us constantly encourages more “needs.” General Omar Bradley once observed, “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”

To reduce our stress and maintain our planet we need to make wiser choices. Not only about how best to balance work and leisure, but also about which of the ever-expanding list of leisure activities to select—some of them are less stressful than others. However, wiser choices will come only if we as individuals care more about wisdom. Only if we begin to realize there is much truth in the Bible verse, “For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.”