We in the West aren't as freed up as we should be, but we also aren't as busy as we're constantly told.
Jason St. Angelo

In chapter five of “Through the Looking-Glass,” Alice finds herself in a dark shop, where she tries to purchase an egg. “I never put things into people’s hands — that would never do — you must get it for yourself,” the shopkeeper tells her. Alice, bewildered, asks herself “why it wouldn’t do?”

The shopkeeper has given her what Craig Lambert, a former long-time editor at Harvard Magazine, would call “shadow work,” the not-quite neologism that serves as the title of his latest book.*

Lambert’s idea of shadow work includes any task that isn’t done for its own pleasure and that is in some way “in the service of an institutional master.” For him:

“Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. Most of us do not recognize it or realize how much of it we are doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and assemble our Ikea furniture.”

For Lambert, this shadow work isn’t just “a marginal nuisance snipping spare moments away from the edges of life,” but rather “a fire-breathing dragon, operating 24/7 throughout the industrialized world” that amounts to what he calls “middle-class serfdom.”

“Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day,” published earlier this year, is part of a genre we might call American Busyness Studies; which is to say, it is another attempt to diagnose whatever societal morbidity derailed John Maynard Keynes’ 1928 prediction that by 2028 our wealth and technology would permit us all to work 15-hour weeks and dedicate our lives to leisure.

“... our collective obsession with time pressure is part of a cycle of credulity...”

Lambert points to diverse examples of time-sucking shadow work foreclosing on genuine leisure time, and in some cases they ring true: At one point, he notes that we’re willingly spending hours handing over data for companies like Facebook to sell, or learning new apps and software intended to make our lives easier. But other, mostly anecdotal examples miss their mark. In his chapter on shadow work in “home and family life,” he addresses the prevalence of parents driving their children to school, writing, “Millions now [log] shadow work as unpaid school-bus drivers. This was hardly the childhood norm for the Baby Boom generation.” But studies that have looked at this find that most parents drive their children to school because it’s actually more convenient, and because fewer families than in past decades live within safe walking distance of schools. Lambert introduces the phenomenon, but doesn’t really explain it. Can parents be burdened by a task that saves them time or stress?*

He offers other examples, such as salad bars where one confects one’s own lunch; but this belies the rapid rise of fast-casual restaurants like Chop’t or Chipotle, where serried rows of minimum-wage workers deliver bespoke meals on demand. He mourns the supposedly thinning ranks of “floor walkers” who once attended to big box store customers’ every need, but one wonders if he has set foot in an Apple store, where the cordial-suspicious salespeople must be batted away like gnats.

Emancipation from toil hasn’t happened, but we also aren't as overwhelmed as Lambert and his ilk would have us believe. Casually humblebragging about how busy we are has become a conversational banality akin to talking about the weather, but our collective obsession with time pressure is part of a cycle of credulity: popular press accounts about widespread busyness lead more people to report that they’re busy, which creates further media coverage of the same. In truth, we’re not as busy as we think, and warnings of off-kilter work-life experience often elide larger political contexts — the public policies, cultural norms and technologies that determine individuals’ control over their own time.

There are certainly people “who will testify that life is flying them by. But, demographically, they seem to be outnumbered,” says John P. Robinson. Robinson, who has studied American temporal experience for decades as the director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, focuses on 24-hour time diary data, which is compiled yearly in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS) and includes participants from across the socioeconomic spectrum recording specific activities in real time. According to the ATUS, Americans above the age of 15 spent just as many average hours per day on leisure and sports in 2014 as they did in 2004, and in each year in between. The same is also true for average hours spent working on workdays. And other researchers looking back even further, to 1965, have found that we generally work less and have more leisure time than previous generations.

Robinson points to a slight uptick in sleep and television time and says that you simply “can’t look at the ATUS data and find support for the idea that we're becoming a more frantic society.” In a 2012 paper for Social Indicators Research he wrote that, “Counter to the popular societal consensus on an increasingly time-pressured society ... reports of feelings of being ‘always rushed’ declined by 6-9 points from those reported in 2004 … both among employed and unemployed respondents.”*

These are averages, so certain groups can tug on the larger trend lines, while others may be missed altogether. Depending on the state of the economy, an uptick in leisure might be driven to a larger degree by unemployment; and the sampling probably barely accounts for the vanishingly small one percent that controls more than a third of total wealth. The ATUS also doesn’t factor in “other activities done simultaneously.” That means it misses multitasking, which can amplify the feeling of being frazzled; but it also means it leaves out leisure activities conducted during work hours. A yearly Salary.com survey found that, “Workers are wasting more time than ever in 2014,” with just under two-thirds of respondents admitting to spending 30 minutes to an hour on non-work activities every day (much of it on Facebook).

“Emancipation from toil hasn’t happened, but we also aren't as overwhelmed as many would have us believe.”

Beyond quantifying the relative volumes of work and leisure, social scientists also analyze the quality of time spent, rendering a measure of subjective quality of life in addition to objective temporal expenditure. Toward this end, in 2010 the ATUS began soliciting 24-hour time diary records of respondents’ feelings about specific activities that fill their days.

One finding seems to indicate widespread boredom. In a study Robinson published in the journal Psychology in 2014, he found below-average enjoyment ratings for the two central-most activities in American leisure and productive life: television and one’s day job, respectively. TV viewing, he notes, “consumes almost half of peoples’ free time,” yet has the same enjoyment score as email and commuting, and it clocks in only slightly above the enjoyment rating people give their job.

This is a startling possibility; if further studies bear it out, it will help explain our predilection to feel harried. If people aren’t even enjoying the “life” side of the work-life divide, then it’s predictable that they’ll think they’re busier than they are.*

Some people have more command over their free time than others. Looking at the period between 1965 and 2003, researchers for the Institute of the Study of Labor found that as leisure time for less-educated people has increased, its quality has diminished. This is especially true for women in dual-income households who while doing less housework than in decades past still contribute more than their male counterparts. To explain this, the authors point to increased “leisure fragmentation … the extent to which leisure events are interrupted by other activities,” and speculate that higher educated and wealthier individuals are better equipped to “time their leisure so as to make it less fragmented, and to coordinate it with others’ leisure, even if in exchange for a lower quantity of leisure.”

All of these findings point to a vast diversity in the American experience of work and leisure, which largely depends on one’s wealth, education, job security and employment status. Ultimately, there is no simple explanation for the modern time pressure paradox because for many people it doesn’t exist. For others, it surely does, but it manifests in different ways and for very different reasons. The American Psychological Association’s annual “Stress in America” report helps to limn these categories, while bolstering Robinson’s own assessment. In the latest release this past February, it found that, “Overall, Americans seem to be doing fairly well — average stress levels are trending downward,” with predictable exceptions: “… parents, younger generations and those living in lower-income households … [who] report higher levels of stress than Americans overall.”

Nick Hanauer and David Rolf, in a recent essay in Democracy Journal, describe a woman they call Zoe who is one of those exceptions. Zoe juggles low-wage part-time jobs and moonlights in the “gig economy” as an Uber X driver but still struggles to keep up financially. She feels busy — indeed, stressed to the point of despair — in a fundamentally different way than a sales executive in Manhattan who must rush every day to pick up his children from private daycare while also keeping up on his Twitter feed. As Hanauer and Rolf warn, “a nation full of Zoes is a nation full of people who simply do not have the time or energy to help their children with their homework, to be good neighbors, or to participate in the civic life of their communities.”

Zoe’s situation is a far cry from the 15-hour workweek Keynes predicted, but it isn’t a mystery. As Hanauer and Rolf note, her situation has obvious policy dimensions and could be improved by public programs, such as social safety nets and initiatives that create opportunities for further education and skills training, and stronger corporate and labor market regulation. Reversing her plight, and that of millions like her, is a matter of democratic will, not means. Popular busyness theses usually acknowledge this political reality but prefer to associate themselves with the “lifestyle” publishing genre. They avoid politics in search of some larger, elusive truth to succor the navel-gazing curiosity of the higher-income professional class they’re targeting — people with economic security who say they feel overwhelmed all the same.

Busyness proselytizers suggest that Thorstein Veblen’s fin de siècle theory of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby the moneyed class establishes its status through ostentatious spending, has reversed itself: that prestige now derives from public displays of personal industriousness, not empty extravagance. Meanwhile, as Staffan Linder pointed out in 1970, when wealthy people pursue leisure and consumptive activities, they must expend their valuable time in addition to their money, resulting in a tyranny of choice that can add more angst than pleasure. And as today’s critics argue, our devices assail our attention and hold our leisure time hostage such that technological innovation meant to empower us imprisons us instead.

Some theorists have begun to push back on that last, most common postulation. “The stereotype that everyone has busy lives,” writes Judy Wajcman in “Pressed for Time,” belies the fact that teenagers manically texting back and forth never seem to complain about the data deluge. Attributing our exaggerated sense of time pressure to technology is, as Wajcman told a London School of Economics audience last year, a form of determinism that pardons our politics and culture, the “prerogatives and parameters we as a society set.” When we ascribe acceleration in our pace of life to the technologies we use, we abnegate our own roles in engaging with those technologies.

For example, a common complaint is that mobile phones have allowed work life to colonize the home. But this excuses the companies and individuals who make the conscious decision to exploit the accessibility phones provide. Meanwhile, as Wajcman found in her own study on the intermingling of domestic and work life, most mobile phone use at work is for domestic purposes, such as coordinating child care or leisure activities. In this way, phones are used to actually save time and alleviate stress. Technology’s effect on our sense of temporal experience, it seems, is more complex and dialectical than the Jeremiahs of an overwhelming pace of life are willing to allow.

Industrial society has always grappled with these conundrums. As Wajcman points out, “A sense of acceleration has … accompanied the path of Western modernity since its origins”; and technology has always “played a key role” while also always running into a wall. Oscar Wilde acknowledged this in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” in 1891, when he observed that, “Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve.” Wilde, neglecting to mention that plenty of people starved before the Industrial Revolution, nevertheless envisioned a world that had overcome the paradox of progress — a world where all undesirable work “should be done by a machine,” where “The State is to be a voluntary association” and where the individual “is to make what is beautiful.”

In Wilde’s imagined future private property had been abolished. He knew that his vision, and that of socialists generally, was utopian, but he embraced it as such. For him, “Progress is the realization of Utopias.” More importantly, he knew that the goal of an equitable leisure society was a political project more than a technological one. He was prescient in this regard. Just a few decades later, the Bolsheviks’ frustrated attempt to appropriate capitalist technologies and systems of production for their own socialist purposes demonstrated, in practice, the perils of trusting technocratic means to achieve political ends.* Irrespective of material innovation, change in how individuals think about society, its defining institutions and their place in it, must precede change in society itself. There is no hack to accelerate the process.

“Busyness treatises succor the navel-gazing curiosity of the higher-income professional class they’re targeting...”

A deeper awareness of what drives social and political change does not encumber today’s exponents of technological innovation, who trust American capitalism’s dynamism to more than make up for its damages.

Perhaps a rethink is in order. Nicholas Agar’s “The Sceptical Optimist,” published this month, exposes the folly of what he calls “radical optimism” and any claim that “accelerating technological progress can significantly enhance well-being.” According to Agar, there is a psychological process endemic to how technological innovation affects human society and its individual members’ feelings about their quality of life. It’s a process Sisyphus would know all too well. What if, in our supposed race against time, technology’s role is essentially moot?

As Agar explains, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation leads us to quickly grow accustomed to new technologies, thus discounting what marginal pleasure or utility they initially provide. When you purchase the new Apple Watch you may feel happier for a week, a month, maybe longer, but eventually that feeling subsides; your sense of subjective well-being in fact returns more or less to the “hedonic baseline” it was at when your wrists were unadorned (fortunately, the same thing happens following negative events in our lives: we tend to bounce back).

And as Agar points out, this process operates at a generational level as well. Through what he calls hedonic normalization, a society’s sense of revolution after a major new technology appears stops with the generation born immediately thereafter. Young people raised with the new technology take it for granted just as we take air conditioning and washing machines for granted today. Consider that, thanks to the fruits of modernity, most of us live longer and more comfortably than a patrician under the Antonine Dynasty or a bourgeoisie in 19 Century France. And yet there is no reason to think that Roman or that Frenchman is any more or less happy than someone of similar socioeconomic standing in the 21 Century United States.

Material advancement as Agar describes it — with its baked-in tendency to disappoint — has a clear dark side. For society at large, it can divert focus and resources from other goals, including “enhancing social justice, equalizing educational opportunities, reducing unemployment, and many more.” And for individuals, it may help explain why we say we feel ever busier even when we aren’t. We as a culture make increasingly ambitious promises to ourselves that beleaguer our psyches and erode our hopes when things don’t pan out as expected.

Asked about this, Agar wrote back that, because of hedonic adaptation,

“We end up with some of the downsides of new technologies (e.g. finding ourselves helpless and clueless when they don’t work properly) but few of the expected upsides. This could be a special problem when a new convenience technology displaces activities from which we derive robust enjoyment. I’m thinking of activities like cooking. We feel that we don’t have time to cook an evening meal — along comes a cool labor saving gadget. Hedonic adaptation swiftly erodes any enjoyment associated with using it, but it’s too late (we’re too busy) to reinstate cooking with all of its time-consuming chopping, heating, and stirring.”

This is a variation of that age-old question: Is it better to have cooked and lost, or to have never cooked at all?

Since Keynes, and Wilde before him, Western life has seen broad economic, political, social and material transformations. But when we reach each new Utopia we’re neither closer nor further from a true life of leisure. Rather than offload work, we choose equilibrium, absorbing our gains so as to take on more. This tendency toward speed, efficiency and convenience is imbued into almost every policy decision and every invention. Agar and Wajcman recommend that we start going about it another way. We shouldn’t shun developments that enhance our sense of well-being, as Lambert often does in his hunt for shadow work, but we also shouldn’t prioritize material progress over hardscrabble politics. Only the latter can ensure social justice, economic security and “temporal sovereignty” for all.

If we ever want to reach a workless society — or at least one where we work less — it won’t do to rely on dispassionate historical or technological forces to bring it about. Instead, we’ll have to get it for ourselves.


Stuart Whatley (@StuartWhatley) is Executive Blog Editor at the Huffington Post.

Top illustration by Jason St. Angelo (@jaysaintNY).

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