Chancing upon an article in the economist titled “Why is everyone so busy” was my muse for this post. Quoting an early passage the piece centres around from the hugely influential British economist John Maynard Keynes who stated in 1939 when predicting future work/life balance:
“Our grandchildren would work around three hours a day—and probably only by choice”.
It resonates because it’s something I and many others can probably relate to. With so many technological and socio-economic advances since the industrial revolution and indeed since the birth of the internet age, why does life feel so rushed and pressured? The article refers to the notion of perception and contrast rather than a reality that we actually all have less time. This is succinctly summed up in the piece when it says:
To be pressed for time has become a sign of prosperity, an indicator of social status, and one that most people are inclined to claim.
This alludes to a paradigm of choice suggesting we have complete freedom and we are victims of our own self-determinism. But for me it really highlights the pernicious culture in the developed world of materialism and neoliberalism. In these contexts the question of “what is success” could be measured by one’s wealth, professional status and social capital. So despite technology the gap between the have and the have nots is getting ever wider despite platitudes and policies by western governments to counter this.
The 2013 Oxfam report “Even it up” is well worth a read on this subject but it really adds validity to the attribution of policy as a driver for inequality. The Economist article also references this divide:
The struggle to earn a place on that narrow pedestal encourages people to slave away for incomparably long hours. So rising wages, rising costs, diminishing job security and more demanding, rewarding work are all squeezing leisure time
So there is the race to the top for the haves and the race to stay afloat for the have nots. In the UK for example the huge rise in the number of workers on zero hour contacts and the paucity of investment in careers guidance (a proven and valuable component of any social mobility policy) really reinforces this systemic failure. Whilst still on this subject of the impact of careers guidance a recently commissioned “mobility manifesto” report for the Sutton Trust really hammers home its value. Governments take note!
Technological determinism has always been at the forefront of mainstream popular culture and prediction albeit following a divergent pattern. For example we are often presented with the utopian (think Star Trek) and more box office, dystopian future (think Terminator). So where am I going with all this? Well, I can’t help but think the combination of technological advancement and policy has not really worked out as the optimists may have intended. Certainly not in the case of John Maynard Keynes predicted.
Many people have found the advancement of technology has eroded low skilled jobs and those in professional roles may not have seen the home working revolution we were promised (have you seen the traffic jams recently!). So it does make you wonder who the winners from us mere mortals really are doesn’t it?
Our life space has also suffered. Surely the most destructive device to work/life balance has to be the smart phone. Again, I know many people who are “on call” well beyond their contracted hours and access and respond to work emails on their Blackberry because they feel compelled to. Push notifications must seem to some to be the modern day Victorian servant bell.
Finally I am reminded of the story of the Mexican fisherman. It’s well known but it’s stayed with me over the years. For those of you unfamiliar please have a read because it’s a parable that relates to a question I posed in a previous post, “What is Success?”
The moral of the story. Sometimes we’re so busy trying to climb the mountain we forget the name of the mountain we’re trying to climb. Food for thought.