The Null Device

The hedonic treadmill / The American Dream

Grim Meathook Realist Jamie Zawinski recently posted a link to an interesting article on the decline of leisure time in America:
The rise of worktime was unexpected. For nearly a hundred years, hours had been declining. When this decline abruptly ended in the late 1940s, it marked the beginning of a new era in worktime. But the change was barely noticed. Equally surprising, but also hardly recognized, has been the deviation from Western Europe. After progressing in tandem for nearly a century, the United States veered off into a trajectory of declining leisure, while in Europe work has been disappearing. Forty years later, the differences are large.
Since 1948, productivity has failed to rise in only five years. The level of productivity of the U.S. worker has more than doubled. In other words, we could now produce our 1948 standard of living (measured in terms of marketed goods and services) in less than half the time it took in that year. We actually could have chosen the four-hour day. Or a working year of six months. Or, every worker in the United Stares could now be taking every other year off from work-with pay. Incredible as it may sound, this is just the simple arithmetic of productivity growth in operation.But between 1948 and the present we did not use any of the productivity dividend to reduce hours. In the first two decades after 1948, productivity grew rapidly, at about 3 percent a year. During that period worktime did not fall appreciably. Annual hours per labor force participant fell only slightly. And on a per-capita (rather than a labor force) basis, they even rose a bit. Since then, productivity growth has been lower, but still positive, averaging just over 1 percent a year. Yet hours have risen steadily for two decades. In 1990, the average American owns and consumes more than twice as much as he or she did in 1948, but also has less free time.
Of course, "Western Europe" here means "Inefficient Socialist Europe", and excludes Britain, which would be somewhere between the two extremes of the time-poor Americans frantically running on their hedonic treadmills to keep up with each other and the economically stagnant cheese-eating, wine-drinking José Bové slow-lifers of Europe. As would Australia, which, with its new employment laws, looks set to move closer to the US model. (I wonder how many employees in Howard's Australia will decide not to trade half of their annual leave for more income.)

The decline in American leisure time seems to have resulted from the boom in material prosperity since the end of the war, and the "hedonic treadmill" effect: individual happiness being a function of one's comparative prosperity next to one's peers, rather than one's absolute wellbeing, meaning that luxuries soon became necessities, and as some people were willing to trade more of their leisure time for the chance to accumulate more shiny objects, others found themselves bound to follow, and the few refuseniks found themselves having little choice, because, whilst you can trade earnings for goods, trading them for free time is harder:

With few exceptions, employers (the sellers) don't offer the chance to trade off income gains for a shorter work day or the occasional sabbatical. They just pass on income, in the form of annual pay raises or bonuses, or, if granting increased vacation or personal days, usually do so unilaterally. Employees rarely have the chance to exercise an actual choice about how they will spend their productivity dividend. The closest substitute for a "market in leisure" is the travel and other leisure industries that advertise products to occupy, our free time. But this indirect effect has been weak, as consumers crowd increasingly expensive leisure spending into smaller periods of time.
In economic terms, this feedback loop has been good for investors, making the United States a world leader in productivity. In social terms, there has been a heavy toll, with stress, family breakdown, and children brought up by their PlayStations whilst their harried parents work full time and come home too stressed and exhausted for any meaningful interaction:
Sleep has become another casualty of modern life. According to sleep researchers, studies point to a "sleep deficit" among Americans, a majority of whom are currently getting between 60 and 90 minutes less a night than they should for optimum health and performance. The number of people showing up at sleep disorder clinics with serious problems has skyrocketed in the last decade. Shiftwork, long working hours, the growth of a global economy (with its attendant continent-hopping and twenty-four-hour business culture), and the accelerating pace of life have all contributed to sleep deprivation. If you need an alarm clock, the experts warn, you're probably sleeping too little.
Half the population now says they have too little time for their families. The problem is particularly acute for women: in one study, half of all employed mothers reported it caused either "a lot" or an "extreme" level of stress. The same proportion feel that "when I'm at home I try to make up to my family for being away at work, and as a result I rarely have any time for myself." This stress has placed tremendous burdens on marriages. Two-earner couples have less time together, which researchers have found reduces the happiness and satisfaction of a marriage. These couples often just don't have enough time to talk to each other. And growing numbers of husbands and wives are like ships passing in the night, working sequential schedules to manage their child care.
Even when parents are at home, overwork may leave them with limited time, attention, or energy for their children. One working parent noted, "My child has severe emotional problems because I am too tired to listen to him. It is not quality time; it's bad quantity time that's destroying my family." Economist Victor Fuchs has found that between 1960 and 1986, the time parents actually had available to be with children fell ten hours a week for whites and twelve for blacks. Hewlett links the "parenting deficit" to a variety of problems plaguing the country's youth: poor performance in school, mental problems, drug and alcohol use, and teen suicide.
Thank God that America has a world-class pharmaceutical industry to provide treatments for the numerous effects of such a lifestyle.

There are no comments yet on "The hedonic treadmill / The American Dream"

Want to say something? Do so here.

Post pseudonymously

Display name:
URL:(optional)
To prove that you are not a bot, please enter the text in the image into the field below it.

Your Comment:

Please keep comments on topic and to the point. Inappropriate comments may be deleted.

Note that markup is stripped from comments; URLs will be automatically converted into links.