Wednesday, October 22, 2014

10 Reasons our super busy lives aren't more like the Jetsons.

Do you remember the old cartoon, The Jetsons? First produced in 1962, it was about a typical family in a utopian futuristic society 100 years later, in 2062. We watched George, Jane, Judy Elroy, and even Rosie, their robot maid, and Astro, their robot dog, go about their daily lives. If you recall, with all of their space-aged hi tech gadgets like appliances that manned themselves, kitchens that cooked automatically, and flying cars, the Jetsons had little to do but interact and enjoy each other’s company, even when George went to work for Mr. Spacely with his 5-second commute and 1-hour work day.

Believe it or not, that’s really how people thought our current society would look back in the mid 20th century. It was widely believed that technological innovations would free us up from life’s mundane tasks. Furthermore, we would live longer, have a shorter work day, widely eliminate poverty and disease, and live much longer, happier lives with far more time for recreation thanks to our space aged technology.

However, it hasn’t quite worked out like that. In fact, we’re busier than ever – a nation of over-stressed, over-worked, over-scheduled individuals with seemingly twice as much to check off our To Do lists, not far less. We wear our “busy-ness” like a badge of honor, proclaiming, “Oh you know, just super busy,” or “I’m good – too so busy,” when someone asks us in earnest how we are doing.

It’s to the degree that being busy has become its own virtue, socially accepted and reinforced. We answer 15 emails, let the plumber in, drive the kids to school, grocery shop, drop off dry cleaning, and do a load of laundry – and that’s just before and after work, at a pace so frantic we barely take time to breathe in between. And we’ve managed to pass that busy gene on to our children, who fill every free hour with school activities, sports leagues, video games, television, social media, and other activities we see as essential.  No wonder we are the country with the highest rate of anxiety in the world, affecting up to 1 in 4 people. It’s to the point that we’re the richest country in the world, but suffering an epidemic of “time poverty.”

But is all of our dusk-'til-dawn go-getting necessary?

In 1928, John Maynard Keynes, one of the leading economist of his day, wrote an essay titled, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In it, he outlined what he though the world and U.S. would look like 100 years in the future, just like the Jetsons. By 2028, Keynes predicted, the standard of life in Europe and the U.S. would be so improved that no one would need to worry about making money. Thanks to an unprecedented flood of technological and mechanical innovations during the Industrial Revolution like electricity, rubber, steel, the chemical industry, automated machinery and the means for mass production, people would only work three hours a day and there would still be a surplus. Even with 15-hour workweeks, the global economy would increase sevenfold, according to Keynes.

The newfound problem in 2028 would be how to occupy all of our newfound leisure time. “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won,” said Keynes.

Fast forward 80-something years, and our U.S gross domestic product has actually increased sixteen times over, and our per capital income is six times greater than when he made his predictions in 1928. But for some reason, we seem to be twice as busy, even more hurried and harrowed, not enjoying more leisure time.

Why is that? Here are 10 reasons why we’re not living like the Jetsons:

1. That which you possess, possesses you.
Our technology takes time and energy to maintain, repair, use, update, and buy. We never anticipated that!

2. Being “super busy,” is largely a U.S. problem.
In fact, the average employed American now works about 140 hours more per year than the average Englishman and 300 more hours than the average Frenchmen! French workers get at least 30 days paid vacation per national law and Brits, 28 days. U.S. workers have zero mandated paid vacations days. And though the Germans and Italians also work almost half as much as Americans, they are known for efficiency and productivity. According to the Journal of Happiness Studies, “Americans maximize happiness by working while Europeans maximize happiness through leisure.”

3. Social media.
The perilous paradigm of social media is that it keeps us connected like never before, blurring the lines between work, leisure, socializing, and information gathering. Maybe more than time and even money, it seems like brainpower or focus is our most finite resource. Yet we exhaust ourselves mentally by taking in thousands (I if not millions) of sensory cues, even multi-tasking our multi-tasking. With that mind-numbing barrage of stimuli, it’s no wonder we are busier but not more productive.

4. Our culture.
Maybe it’s something about the Puritanical Ideal of hard work for its own sake or the mass hysteria of consumerism starting in the 1980’s, but our popular culture doesn’t just reinforce the notion that we should feel guilty if we’re not working at 110% capacity and running a mile-a-minute, it has become our culture.

5. The standard rises equally.
More than ever, we compare ourselves to those around us, intent on keeping up or even surpassing the “Joneses.” We’re worried about what a smaller house or an old used car or hand-me-down clothes might say about us to others, so we avoid the negative perception at all costs. Our societal hierarchical patterns have made the scale of achievement and consumption a never-ending, no-win game that most of keep playing, anyways.

6. Disproportionate distribution.
Just like the share of wealth has been gobbled up by the 1% of richest Americans, (and really, the top 10% of those 1%,) eviscerating the once-stable middle class, the allocation of working hours versus leisure time also seems to follow that financial disparity.

7. Women entering the workforce.
Unlike in 1928 or even 1962 when the Jetsons were created, now, most American women are in the work force. In fact, about two-thirds of American mothers with school-aged kids are employed outside the home. Of course that adds extra income to the household (which is necessary in most cases) but it all subtracts from someone managing the valuable domestic tasks we saw in traditional roles, like housework, cooking, and of course child care. Whether the man or the woman stays home in modern families, having one person to do the domestic work creates a far greater balance and more leisure time, but it’s all-too rare in our society.

8. We’re amazingly proficient consumers.
Even twenty years ago, it was unimaginable that someone would sleep in line for a chance to buy a brand new phone. But we do that, to some extent or another, with phones, computers, televisions, appliances, cars, and even homes.

9. We’re engaging in the wrong leisure activities.
More and more, our down time consists of mindlessly tuning out in front of the television instead of engaging in more human interaction, slower-paced socializing, and pursuing recreational hobbies. Studies show that watching television does little to replenish brain waves, energize us, or provide much needed stress relief.

10. Or is it just our perception?
Maybe this notion that we’re super-human hustle machines is all in our heads? After all, didn’t farmers used to work from dawn to dusk every day? In fact, comprehensive studies that track the sleep and leisure logs over the last 60 years show that the allotment of sleep the average American gets per night or the average amount of leisure time we enjoy hasn’t really changed at all. The average person (including children and the elderly) still sleeps 8.74 hours a night and enjoys 5.26 hours of leisure time a day. According to sociologists John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, that’s almost a full hour more of leisure time than our parents or grandparents had in 1965. So the problem very well could be how we spend that leisure time and the quality of sleep, not the quantity. 

The interesting thing is that in no way does our eagerness to run ourselves ragged with work, tasks, information overload, and consumerism equate to more fuller, enjoyable lives – or even increased productivity. As some sociologists point out, giving the brain time and space to ponder life’s mysteries and dilemmas – to sit under a tree daydreaming until an apple falls on your head – is the best way to serve humanity.

Buckminster Fuller, one of Keyne’s contemporaries and a great mind of his time, diagnosed the human crisis of industrialization, and the future, more aptly:

“…we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

So where are we headed? Will we ever achieve the ideal of that post-industrial futuristic society we saw on The Jetsons? We still have plenty of time before 2062 rolls around to adjust our patterns of work and scheduling, find a healthy balance with social media, enjoy a cultural shift towards leisure, and slay the dragon of consumerism for its own sake. But until the time our lives seem to more closely resemble the perpetually busy Rosie the Robot than the carefree Jetsons.  

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