Are Americans Too Busy?

From a certain view, the most probing question Alexis de Tocqueville had to answer in Democracy inAmerica is “Why are the Americans so restless in the midst of prosperity?”  Why can’t they just stop and enjoy all their good fortune?  Why are those workaholics almost running away from leisure?  Why do those pursuers of happiness seem so unhappy? 


Tocqueville was so worried about the “insane ardor” of the American pursuit of more and more that he went out of his way to praise the cessation of all commercial activity on Sunday.  He saw Sunday as the main way the American had to tear himself free from “the small passions that agitate his life” to really think about who he is as a being with a singular destiny and a high moral purpose. 

Sunday used to be the American’s respite from the endless cycle of work and recreation—recreation so carefully planned that it seems indistinguishable from work.  We Americans, after all, have a “leisure industry,” and we know the “vacation” micromanaged by Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon movie is only an exaggeration of all our inability to rest content with the sweet sentiment ofexistence. These days, of course, most Americans are “Seventh Day Recreationalists.”  And only slackers don’t work on Sunday. 

And certainly the European stereotype of the American remains the Puritan--someone who is grimly moralistic about the duty to be productive and who readily confuses leisurely enjoyment with sin. We think “French work ethic” is an oxymoron.  The French think that the Americans don’t know the first thing about the art of living, about what work is meant to serve.

It turns out, however, that Americans aren’t really working more than ever.  According to Brigid Schulte’s new Overwhelmed, the history American work, considered as a whole, has pretty consistently been in the direction of fewer hours worked per person. It also turn out that aggregate data is deceiving.

Less educated Americans who aren’t single parents are working much less.  They have lots of leisure time.

Single parents work  (jobs plus housework and childcare) the most and are very strapped for time.

Highly educated men and women are working more than they’ve done in the past.  There really is a “leisure gap” that is “a mirror reflection of the income gap.” 

Those who have the leisure typically lack the education and money to make edifying use of it.  And those who have the resources are pretty much choosing not to have the time to enjoy cultivated leisure.

A lot of American leisure (and work!) time is spent in front of screens.  One unprecedented advantage of the screen is that  the great literary, artistic, and visual accomplishments of our civilization and others are readily available to us all for free.  So the marginally productive person has access to the high culture that was once reserved only for the privileged few.  Now there are unprosperous Americans, such as adjunct professors, who do take advantage of their leisure to cultivate their souls.  But most marginally productive Americans—victimized, some might say, by increasingly pathological family life and our failing eductional system—don’t have what it takes to use the screen for personal uplift.  So video games, sports, parts of social media, and, sadly, porn point them in the other direction.  They don’t know much about the art of life, and it’s misleading to call what they do with their freedom leisure.  It’s diversion.

It’s also misleading to say that educated and sophisticated Americans are simply choosing to lose themselves in their jobs.  It’s successful working moms who have the least leisure time.  They’re choosing to have it all, investing their time as lavishly as they can in both their careers and their kids.  They are motivated, in part, by love, and certainly they enjoy their time with their kids.  But most of it is still work.  The understanding of men and women as equally free individuals when it comes to work has been good for justice, but not forleisure.

Not only are educated and prosperous Americans busier than ever, we feel busier than ever, often more busy than we really are.  For all of us, for example, chores aren’t the big deal they once were, but they seem more formidable nonetheless.  Derek Thompson’s final reflections on Schulte’s study are his “pet theories” about why Americans, more than ever, are thinking of themselves of as relentlessly harried in the midst ofprosperity.  I’m going to draw a bit from Thompson's theories, but, accepting his invitation, adding my own spins.

I’m going to leave those theories for the next time.  For now, let me observe that it’s a crucial objection to our techno-democracy that all our freedom and power hasn’t given us most of us what we really need to enjoy who we are as free and relational beings born to love and die.

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