Time and Busyness
It has, perhaps, always been true that “time is money.” But for the current generation, this maxim has a new twist. In the frenetic 90s, time has become even more scarce than money and therefore more valuable. As with any commodity, the law of supply and demand determines value. In the last two decades, free time has grown scarce and hence has become a valuable possession.
The 1990s is the decade of the time famine. Leisure time, once plentiful and elastic, is now scarce and elusive. People seeking the good life are finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy it, even if they can afford it. What money was in the 1980s, time has become in the 1990s.
According to a Lou Harris survey, the amount of leisure time enjoyed by the average American has shrunk 37 percent since 1973. A major reason is an expanding workweek. Over this same period, the average workweek (including commuting) has increased from fewer than 41 hours to nearly 47 hours. And in many professions, such as medicine, law, and accounting, an 80-hour week is not uncommon. Harris therefore concludes that “time may have become the most precious commodity in the land.”
The Technology of Time
Our current time crunch has caught most people off-guard. Optimistic futurists in the 1950s and 60s, with visions of utopia dancing in their heads, predicted Americans would enjoy ample hours of leisure by the turn of the century. Computers, satellites, and robotics would remove the menial aspects of labor and deliver abundant opportunities for rest and recreation.
The optimists were partly right: computers crunch data at unimaginable speeds, orbiting satellites cover the globe with a dizzying array of messages, and robots zap together everything from cars to computer chips at speeds far exceeding their human counterparts. Yet these and other technological feats have not freed Americans from their labors. Most people are busier than ever.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1967 predicted that “by 1985, people could be working just 22 hours a week or 27 weeks a year or could retire at 38.” The major challenge facing people in the 1990s should have been what to do with all the leisure time provided by our technological wizardry.
Instead, technology has been more of an enemy than an ally. “Technology is increasing the heartbeat,” says Manhattan architect James Trunzo, who designs automated environments. “We are inundated with information. The mind can’t handle it all. The pace is so fast now, I sometimes feel like a gunfighter dodging bullets.”
Actually, the problem isn’t so much technology as it is the heightened expectations engendered by it. The increased speed and efficiency of appliances, computers, and other machines have enabled us to accomplish much more than was possible in previous decades. But this efficiency has also fostered a desire to take on additional responsibilities and thereby squeeze even more activities into already crammed calendars.
As the pace of our lives has increased, over-commitment and busyness have been elevated to socially desirable standards. Being busy is chic and trendy. Pity the poor person who has an organized life and a livable schedule. Everyone, it seems, is running out of time.
It is little wonder that most of the products now being developed are not so much time-savers as they are time-controllers. Most of the appliances developed in the 1950s–vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, mixers–were designed to save time and remove drudgery from housework. By comparison, most of the products developed in the 1980s–VCRs, answering machines, automatic tellers–were time- controllers. These devices do not save much time, but they do allow harried consumers to use their time more effectively.
Technological efficiency has also increased competition. Labor- saving devices that are supposed to make life easier frequently force people to work harder. Baby boomers who are intensely competing with one another for jobs and prestigious promotions avidly employ the latest equipment to give them an edge. Faxes, LANs, car phones, and laptop computers are viewed as necessities if one is to remain competitive.
But technology isn’t enough. So most professionals, especially those in service industries such as law, accounting, and advertising, work long hours in an effort to meet their clients’ seemingly endless needs and demands. Other baby boomers feel trapped in the same rat race because economic pressures make it nearly impossible to support a family on one income.
The work ethic seems out of control. In the frenetic dash for success or just plain survival, leisure time becomes a scarce commodity. “My wife and I were sitting on the beach in Anguilla on one of our rare vacations,” recalls architect James Trunzo, “and even there my staff was able to reach me. There are times when our lives are clearly leading us.”
No Time to Talk
Everywhere, it seems, people are over-scheduled and over-committed. Workers are weary. Parents are preoccupied. And children and family relationships are often neglected.
A recent survey by Cynthia Langham at the University of Detroit found that parents and children spend only 14.5 minutes per day talking to each other. That is less time than a football quarter and certainly much less time than most people spend commuting to work.
She says that many people are shocked to hear the 14.5-minutes statistic. But once they take a stopwatch to their conversations, they realize she is right.
But that 14.5 minute statistic is misleading, since most of that time is squandered on chitchat like “What’s for supper?” and “Have you finished your homework?” Truly meaningful communication between parent and child unfortunately occupies only about two minutes each day. Langham concludes, “Nothing indicates that parent-child communications are improving. If things are changing, it’s for the worse.”
She points to two major reasons for this communication breakdown. First is a change in the workforce. A few decades ago the dinner table was a forum for family business and communication. But now, when dinner-time rolls around, Dad is still at work, Mom is headed for a business meeting, and sister has to eat and run to make it to her part-time job. Even when everyone is home, there are constant interruptions to meaningful communication.
The second reason for poor parent-child communication is the greatest interruption of all: television. Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell has reported a forty-year decline in the amount of time children spend with their parents, and much of the recent loss is due to television. TV sabotages much of the already-limited time families spend together. Meals are frequently eaten in front of the “electronic fireplace.” After dinner, talk-starved families gather to watch congenial television families with good communication skills, like the Huxtables on the Cosby show.
While some television shows deal with issues families might discuss (drugs, pregnancy, honesty), few families take advantage of these opportunities to talk about the dilemmas portrayed on the programs and provide moral instruction.
The greeting card business has developed a whole new product line for busy parents and children. More and more children are finding cards in their backpacks or under their pillows that proclaim, “Have a good day at school,” or lament, “I wish I were there to tuck you in.”
The effect of time pressures on the family has been devastating. Yale psychology professor Edward Ziglar somberly warns that “as a society, we’re at the breaking point as far as family is concerned.”
Homemaking and child- rearing are full-time activities. When both husband and wife work, maintaining a home and raising a family becomes difficult. In the increasing numbers of single-parent households, the task becomes next to impossible.
Someone has to drive car pools, make lunches, do laundry, cope with sick kids and broken appliances, and pay the bills. In progressive homes, household tasks are shared as the traditional husband/wife division of labor breaks down. In others, super-Mom is expected to step into the gap and perform flawlessly.
Inevitably, children are forced to grow up quickly and take on responsibilities they should never have to shoulder. Some children are effectively abandoned–if not physically, at least emotionally- -and must grow up on their own. Others are latch-key kids who are forced to mature emotionally beyond their years. These demands take their toll and create what sociologist David Elkind has called the “hurried child” syndrome.
Time, or rather our lack of it, is severely hurting families. Nurturing suffers when families do not have time to communicate and parents do not have time to instruct their children. In the end, the lack of time takes its toll on the stability of our families.
Never Enough Time
A 1989 survey done by Family Circle documented the loss of time in families, especially for working mothers. The article, entitled “Never Enough Time?” began: “Remember ‘quality time’? In the 1980’s that was what you sandwiched in for the children between the office and the housework. We all learned how valuable time was in the school of hard knocks. Life was what happened while we were busy making other plans, to paraphrase ex-Beatle John Lennon.” That was then.
A resounding 71 percent of those surveyed said their lives had gotten busier in the previous year. Nearly a third attributed this increase in busyness to expanding work loads at the office, the demands of a new job, or the pressures of starting a business or returning to work. Not only were the women working longer hours, but many were also working on weekends, and nearly a third often took work home.
Dual-income couples reported major difficulties finding time for each other. Negotiating schedules and calendar-juggling were daily activities. Three out of four women in the survey reported that finding enough time to be alone with their husbands was “often” or “sometimes” a major stress in their relationships. When asked, “In a time crunch, who gets put on the back burner?” half said friends, then husbands, and then other family members.
Those hit hardest by time pressures were single parents. One single mother with two teenagers in Illinois wrote: “I am responsible for a house and yard, work 40 hours a week, take college classes, run a local support group for divorced and widowed women and am involved with a retreat group through church. I have time because I make time.”
Often the first thing women will let slide is housekeeping. A full 82 percent said they had changed their standards of cleaning and organizing a house. When asked why, 49 percent said other things are more important, 42 percent said they were more relaxed about letting chores wait, 35 percent said they had one or more young children, and 23 percent said they had taken a paying job.
Organization expert Stephanie Winston says that the young generation of working women has reframed expectations about household responsibilities. She says, “Their sense of what is expected of them is really very different from what was expected 10 years ago, when women joining the work force had been raised on the old model–rearing the family, cooking, cleaning and the proverbial white-glove test.” But whether they were in the work force or full- time homemakers, more than half of the women surveyed were either “very” or “somewhat” dissatisfied with the amount of time they have alone. Only 30 percent try to set aside four or more hours a week just for themselves. Another 30 percent carve out two to three hours. But 19 percent say they give themselves an hour or less a week, and 20 percent do not allot themselves any leisure time at all.
The time pressure on women and families is significant. The time crunch is squeezing out meaningful communication and important time to think and reflect. The additional time will not come without changes in our lifestyles.
Redeeming the Time
Time, or the lack of it, will continue to dominate our thinking through the 1990s. All of us are in the midst of a time crunch–the solution is to recognize our priorities and apply them rigorously to our lives.
First, we must establish biblical priorities in our lives. Often our busyness is merely a symptom of a deeper problem, such as materialism. In Luke 12, Jesus illustrated this danger with the parable of the rich fool. He says, “The land of a certain rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, `What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ And he said, `This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods, laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”‘ But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'”
There are a number of applications we can derive from this passage. First, we should make sure that we are not so involved in the affairs of the world that we neglect the affairs of the spirit. To turn the familiar adage around, we can be so earthly-minded we are no heavenly good.
Second, we should ask ourselves if we are tearing down productive resources for a more luxurious lifestyle. If a three-bedroom house is sufficient, are we selling it merely to move up to a four- bedroom house? If the car we are currently driving is fine, are we nevertheless eager to trade it in on a newer or more expensive model? Often our indulgences constrain our time and financial resources.
This observation leads to our second biblical principle: fight materialism in our lives. Proverbs 28:20 says “He who makes haste to be rich will not go unpunished.” Materialism brings with it a haste to get rich. Materialistic people are not patient people. They want what they want, when they want it, and they want it now.
Often our lack of time is tied to our haste to get rich, to feed our greed. We need to ask ourselves the fundamental question, How much do we really need? If we fight materialism in our lives and cut back on the lavishness of our lifestyle, we might be surprised how much time we will free up.
A third biblical principle is to redeem the time. Ephesians 5:15-16 says “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.” Colossians 4:5 says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, redeeming the time.”
Unlike many of the other resources God has given us, time is not renewable. We may lose money, but we can always earn more. We may lose our possessions, but we can always acquire new ones. But time is a non-renewable commodity. If we squander our time, it is lost forever.
All of us, but especially Christians, must carefully manage the time that God has given us. It is a valuable resource, and we can either spend it on ourselves or redeem it as a spiritual investment. We can spend it only once, and how we spend it can have eternal consequences. Let us not waste the resources God has given us. Instead, let us redeem the time and use it for God’s glory.
© 1992 Probe Ministries.