How we got here, or… Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley
The age of too much to do in too little time we Americans are living in is not solely the product of something that has only become established recently, though it might well seem like it. Its ultimate roots extend deep into our past. The culture of overbusyness we find ourselves snared by is itself held in place by a worldview bound into place inside us largely by the unseen tendrils of Western religion that have grown up through the cracks of society everywhere. Or at least by religion’s darker side. (What? You thought it was all light and goodness?!)
Recall, for example, one of religion’s timeworn sayings whose job is to instill a collective “work ethic” disparaging downtime. The dictum “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” goes back at least several centuries under different variants and is tightly tied to religious admonitions to stay busy at all times, in fear of some kind of unseen boogeyman.
Those outside the church walls may chuckle at such sayings, but nonetheless still cling strongly to the idea of the work ethic, probably viewing it as so self-evident it does not require debate. Nonetheless, the arguments for it are strongly morally tinged — the emotional baggage that goes along with it, and the guilt experienced if one shirks from it, have largely religious roots.
There are a number of other such strictures in Western religion against enjoying oneself too much without sufficient justification. Fortunately they have not been able to stamp out all unbidden leisure, but they do induce a significant amount of guilt over it for many. And that is perhaps the strongest mark it leaves on us, psychologically. Even when we do relax, we may feel we should somehow be using that time to “make something of ourselves.”
Why then, with roots this deep, has it only been in the last several decades that the economy and we participants in it have become so excessively busy? Primarily because fueling the activities of any significantly developed civilization like ours — its work, consumption, busyness, etc. — requires a large supply of energy, which, in the case of ours, has taken a very long time to ramp up to the extravagant levels available to us now. An extended development horizon and increasing supply of it over two or three centuries to the gargantuan quantities we devour today has been required to fuel the evolution of our high-tech world to its current orgiastic frenzy of hyperactivity and overconsumption.
The master resource that fuels all action
Energy is the “master resource” that enables the unlocking of all others and their products that we consume. (Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book The Upside of Down contains the best and most thoroughgoing treatment of this subject I’ve seen anywhere.) In the past this energy was mostly muscle power (itself fueled by food, of course), both human and animal, with a bit of renewables thrown in — firewood to heat dwellings and help power metallurgy, sail power via wind, a few windmills and water wheels here and there, etc. All of which have serious limits.
Only with the emergence of the commercial production of coal in the 1600s, and especially oil in the mid-1800s, did the industrial revolution take off in a big way. With a colossal endowment of fossil fuels as the base, which took many millions of years to form but we are now drawing down inside just a few centuries, more and more high-octane energy has fueled more and more rapid economic development. Modestly at first, but then faster and faster as it ramped up over two or three centuries and more, it began to feed of off itself in an ever-more-tightly reinforcing dynamic.
The much-ballyhooed “innovation” that business people and economists are so myopically in love with and fetishize today is a co-factor, of course, but not sufficient in and of itself. (Just ask the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria, who invented the steam engine almost 2,000 years before James Watt, eons ago, but which went nowhere without a sufficient supply of coal back then to drive such a technology.)
It takes a huge supply of energy to drive the kind of innovation and associated activity we worship today: The amount of energy per capita that society now has at its disposal has been calculated as the equivalent of over 200 “energy slaves” for each person. (One energy slave being defined as equivalent to the work of one human slave.)
Work as the new “measure of man”
At some point, the Rubicon was crossed where work — not simply for its own sake but as the measure of a person’s worth and their most single important contribution to others — took over as a, if not the, prime cultural value in modern societies. (“It’s the economy, stupid!” quoth President Number 42.) Taken together with the above-mentioned moral or religious guilt as fuel for today’s “work ethic” where individuals now whip themselves into anguished action at their own behest, an external slavedriver is no longer necessary, for he has now been internalized.
Behind the industrial revolution was the idea, at least theoretically, that with all the newfangled labor-saving industry and technology at our disposal we would gain more leisure time. For a brief period in the mid-twentieth century, the workweek was reduced to 40 hours for many workers, with overtime pay beyond that, and the promised land seemed at hand. But this high-water mark turned out to be only temporary.
Now, even though the standard workweek is nominally still 40 hours, the unspoken reality and unwritten rule is that in most larger companies, anyone who is or wants to be “successful” and to advance career-wise is often expected to work well beyond that, overtime pay or not. Typically not, anymore, because of legal loopholes enabling employers to conveniently sidestep it.
At first, it seems that we worked more because, well, because we were so caught up in the idea of “opportunity” and “success,” we wanted to work more to get that carrot dangling in front of us. At its economic apogee in the post-WWII years for two or three decades, the dream seemed to be coming true for many. (Interestingly, the mid-twentieth century is when the term “workaholic” first came into use.)
Soon, though, the dream became a mirage on the horizon, receding farther and farther away. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow no longer materialized for most. And so what did we do? Illogically, we only redoubled our efforts.
What is that clever definition of insanity? “To keep on doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” The truth is that the means had come to usurp the end. In a nutshell, today we work to work. Which is not the same thing as simply enjoying a certain type of work because one loves it. If we did, we would find our work far more satisfying. The surveys are clear that most of us don’t.
The truth is we are on a squirrel cage running ever faster but not going anywhere particularly worthwhile anymore on the economic front. As steady-state economist Herman Daly has astutely observed, economic growth now causes more problems than it solves, and brings with it a decline in the quality of life, a result he has termed “uneconomic growth.” We are chasing our own tails.
A natural benchmark for work versus downtime
It is not actually normal for humans to work as hard as we do today. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the most well-known hunter-gatherer tribes that has been studied (“has been,” because their former way of life is now almost completely gone), the Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa, only needed to work somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 hours a week for their basic survival requirements and household tasks combined.
Think about that for a moment. The above is the combined, all-source total, both outside and inside the home (or perhaps camp might be more accurate). So long as their traditional way of life was still available to them, the Bushmen could not be convinced to work more. They considered the highly work-driven standards of others from outside their world to be what was crazy. Asked why he did not embrace farming, one of them pithily observed: “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Source) For a complete treatment of these people and their now-nearly-bygone way of life, see Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, by James Suzman.
Studies of other hunter-gatherer groups have yielded work-time estimates of between three and five hours per day — roughly 20 to 35 hours per week — so the Bushmen are not simply an isolated case. (See the article “Hunter-Gatherers Have More Leisure Time” for an overview of the research on hunter-gatherer work and leisure, along with criticisms of it.)
Compare this with our 40 or 50-hour workweeks today — before we come home to attend to domestic chores, which might constitute, say, another 10 to 15 hours a week. (14 hours in 2016, according to OnePoll’s research for TaskRabbit.com, or 13 hours/week in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you average their figures for men and women.)
This is not to mention the average time Americans spend commuting to their jobs in the first place (26 minutes one-way as of 2014, or over four hours a week both ways), plus running errands and shopping (perhaps another five hours a week minimum, we’ll say).
All total, the above activities come out to about double the hours “primitive” hunter-gatherers worked. Yet we consider ourselves “advanced.” Advanced technologically? Certainly. Otherwise? Outside the workplace, our in-person, in-the-flesh relationships have greatly dwindled, our health is far worse compared to more primitive peoples (believe it or not), and the richness and depth of our social connections and “quality time” spent with others are a poor imitation of their highly bonded societies.
Yes, there are many tradeoffs, of course. Infant and childhood mortality was very high among hunter-gatherers, but for those who made it to adulthood, the incidence of chronic disease was astonishingly low, with adult life expectancy only modestly less than ours.
The main thing I want to spotlight here from looking at our hunter-gatherer ancestors, though, whose legacy of adaptations and instinctive human psychology has been passed down into our very own DNA, is that working the large number of hours we do is not natural to the human species. This is a huge blind spot for modern Americans.
The reference point provided here underlines how unusual and, I would argue, detrimental to our health, happiness, and well-being our modern value system is with such a skewed emphasis on work, and more truthfully, overwork. Despite our technologically advanced society’s benefits, there should be no mistaking that they come at great sacrifice to the human and social sides of our lives.
American health and happiness: far down the list among high-income countries
But it’s not just comparisons with our species’ past that reveal how corrosive the American way of life is to health and happiness. Despite all our high-tech communications, the internet playground, and fun electronic toys like iPhones, texting, online gaming, and large flat-screen TVs and other household appliances, studies have shown we rank at or near the bottom in happiness among the major developed nations — 18th in fact, according to the 2018 World Happiness Report.
U.S. News and World Report’s brief summary of the report quotes the study authors’ assessment: “The U.S. is in the midst of a complex and worsening public health crisis, involving epidemics of obesity, opioid addiction, and major depressive disorder that are all remarkable by global standards.”
Despite spending roughly two-thirds more on healthcare than other developed nations (about 18% of GDP for the U.S. compared to an average of 11% for the rest, as of 2016), the U.S. ranked last in performance among the 11 highest-income nations the Commonwealth Fund surveys every three years. It’s not hard to see how overwork leads to additional stress, a lack of both time and motivation to exercise or to pay attention to healthier eating habits, and why the collateral damage adds up to less happiness.
Clearly, compared to other nations, our way of life is failing us. Yet we have our heads up our collective posterior orifice still claiming to be the world’s greatest country. Perhaps we once were. No longer. We are overworked, overweight, under-exercised, unhealthy, overbusy, overextended financially, and not particularly happy compared to other nations, on the whole.
Downshifting: a contrarian response
How can we change this? Not by doing more, or trying to be more, or trying harder. The perhaps-counterintuitive, but delightfully subversive answer, is that a good start would be learning how to dial our ambitions and “to do” lists way back, change our attitudes and expectations, and do less. To give ourselves the luxury of time — which isn’t really a luxury at all, but an essential, prime ingredient of the good life, the happy life. And which no amount of money can buy or activity can get you if you believe you need to work or keep busy most of the time.
I’ll dig into strategies for enjoying more space and time each and every day, despite the headwinds of our modern lives, in Part 3.