Escaping the Rat Race: Why We Are Always Running Out of Time

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Author Daniel Hamermesh talks about his new book, Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource

William Penn, a colonist who helped found the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, once said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” That’s the dilemma for many people trying to balance the competing demands of work, family, finances, technology and self-care. The rat race is the biggest reason why Americans are so pressed for time, according to a new book by scholar Daniel Hamermesh. That culture likely won’t change without a government mandate, but he doesn’t see that on the horizon for the U.S. Hamermesh, a distinguished scholar at Barnard College and professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM to talk about his book, Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource, and why Americans can’t get off the treadmill. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

 An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are we spending our time wisely?

Daniel Hamermesh: I don’t think people think enough about how they spend time. They go through motions. They feel more and more rushed. Ideally, I’d like people to sit back and think about what they’re doing. Maybe it would make them feel happier and a little bit less stressed for time.

Knowledge@Wharton: What drew you to write this book?

Hamermesh: I’ve been thinking about time since I was four years old. My mom got me a watch — analog, of course — in 1947. I’ve been fascinated by time ever since. I worry about it a lot. Pure neurosis.

Knowledge@Wharton: With all the data that is out there, is it easier now to understand why we do certain things surrounding our time and our lives, compared with 30 or 40 years ago?

Hamermesh: I think it’s more understandable for two reasons. First of all, it’s only in the last 20 years that the U.S. has had very good data about how people spend their time. The government started collecting 1,000 diaries. You sit down tomorrow morning, fill out what you’re doing every minute of today. They have been getting 1,000 of those every month since 2003. So, there’s a lot more data.

The second thing is economists have thought about it much more. Only in 1965 did they really start thinking about it, and only because of these data, which I use in this book at great length, have people begun to analyze what people do with their time and test their ideas on it.

“Technology has made life better, but it hasn’t saved us much time.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You correlate economic factors with the scarcity of time. Can you talk about that?

Hamermesh: Time is an economic factor; economics is about scarcity more than anything else. Because our incomes keep on going up, whereas time doesn’t go up very much, time is the increasingly important scarce factor. That’s especially true for rich people who have a lot of money, but really no more time than poor people do.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you distinguish the use of time between rich and poor?

Hamermesh: It’s amazing in this regard. The rich, of course, work more than the others. They should. There’s a bigger incentive to work more. But even if they don’t work, they use their time differently. A rich person does much less TV watching — over an hour less a day than a poor person. They sleep less. They do more museum-going, more theater. Anything that takes money, the rich will do more of. Things that take a lot of time and little money, the rich do less of. That’s true here in the U.S. That’s true in France, which I looked at, and true elsewhere.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do we approach the use of time here in the U.S. versus what you see in other countries?

Hamermesh: The only major difference is that Americans are the champions of work among rich countries. We work on average eight hours more per week in a typical week than Germans do, six hours more than the French do. It used to be quite a bit different. Forty years ago, we worked about average for rich countries. Today, even the Japanese work less than we do. The reason is very simple: We take very short vacations, if we take any. Other countries get four, five, six weeks. That’s the major difference.

Knowledge@Wharton: How is the pay in those countries compared with the U.S.? Is it level, or is there a significant difference on the negative?

Hamermesh: Slightly different on the negative. Germany isn’t quite as well off as we are. France isn’t. Japan isn’t. But take Norway, where they also get four or five weeks of vacation: They’re better off than we are. Yes, if we worked less, we’d have to give up a little bit, but not very much. It’s a choice, like anything else. Sit back and think about it and decide how you want to spend your time and how you’d like society to put impositions on you to spend your time — we need to do that. That’s the whole point of the book.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there something that we can glean from what the Norwegians do?

Hamermesh: I don’t think we can do it individually. Sure, I can tell you, “Take it easy. Relax. Walk to work instead of racing for an Uber or a taxi.” But if everyone does this on his own, it’s not going to make much of a difference. All these other countries made the decision, politically, to give people more time off. Until the U.S. does that, until we do it by mandate of vacations, I don’t think people are going to feel less rushed. In fact, they’re going to feel more rushed as they get more income with no more time.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the U.S., does how much we work factor into the income inequality gap?

“I think complaining is the American national pastime, not baseball.”

Hamermesh: No question. It exacerbates the gap, very simply, because there’s more incentives for rich people to work more. There is less of an incentive for a low-wage person to work more. And the rich get richer. It’s our own behavior responding to incentives that exacerbates both the income gap and the time gap between rich and poor.

Knowledge@Wharton: How has technology affected our use of time?

Hamermesh: I don’t think it has changed the amount of time we spend on different things. There’s no question technology has made us better off. Think about going to a museum. When I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago as a kid, you’d pull levers. You did a few things. These days, it’s all incredibly immersive. Great technology. But you can’t go to the museum in any less time. You can’t cut back on sleep. A few things are easier to do more quickly because of technology: cooking, cleaning, washing, I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the semi-automatic washing machine with a ringer. Tremendous improvements in the things you do with the house. Technology has made life better, but it hasn’t saved us much time.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m a dad of three kids who all play sports, so any of that extra time saved by technology is taken up with their sporting activities.

Hamermesh: Perhaps that’s true. But think of how much more fun you’re having because you can spend time with those sporting activities, whereas beforehand you would have been working in a factory eight hours a day, five days a week. So, we are better off, but it’s not that we’re going to have more time; we’re going to have less time. But we have more money chasing the same number of hours.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us about the differences in the way men and women use time?

Hamermesh: It’s really fascinating. In the U.S., how do you define work? We work for pay. We also work at home: shopping, cleaning, cooking, walking the dog, etc. It turns out men and women in the U.S. and other northern European rich countries do about the same amount of total work. There’s very little difference. Women work about one hour more per week than men. They do more house work, less work for pay, yet women are much more bothered by that time stress. In every country I’ve looked at, which was six, women are more bugged by feeling rushed. It’s a fascinating thing.

I think the reason is that women are house managers. Think what happens. A kid gets sick, [the father] is going to come into work. I don’t know what your spouse does, but my spouse would be the one who stayed home when we had little kids, even though she was working also. I think it’s juggling things, doing different things that makes women feel rushed for time.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about our use of time in retirement?

Hamermesh: I’m partly retired. I work only 30 hours a week, which at age 75 is a heck of a lot of work. People sort of go from age 60 to 75 and mostly stop working. What do you do with that time when you have more of it? Depressingly enough, you’d hope people would spend time enriching their lives, reading and so on. The biggest sink for time once you retire are two things: sleep, a little bit; and most important of all, TV watching. Old people watch a heck of a lot more TV than younger people. It’s a sad comment. People get more time, and an awful lot is used to watch the tube.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have a chapter titled “When We Work.” One of the unique things that’s been going on in the last few years is how the gig economy has changed when we work. People now have more options, would you agree?

Hamermesh: A little bit, but that’s very few people. It’s probably a couple of percent at most, as the evidence suggests. What’s most interesting about when we work is you compare America to western European countries, and it’s hard to find a shop open on a Sunday in western Europe. Here, we’re open all the time. Americans work more at night than anybody else. It’s not just that we work more; we also work a lot more at night, a lot more in the evenings, and a heck of a lot more on Sundays and Saturdays than people in other rich countries. We’re working all the time and more.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why do we do that?

“We want more dollars without thinking, are the dollars really going to make us happier?”

Hamermesh: It’s a rat race. If I don’t work on a Sunday and other people do, I’m not going to get ahead. Therefore, I have no incentive to get off that gerbil tube, get out of it and try to behave in a more rational way. Again, it’s a wonderful example of what economists call externalities. I do it. You do it. The only way it’s going to be solved is if somehow some external force, which in the U.S. and other rich countries is the government, imposes a mandate that forces us to behave differently. No individual can do it.

Knowledge@Wharton:  How do these issues affect our economy here in the U.S.?

Hamermesh: [Let’s] define economics as using scarce resources to maximize our well-being. So, no question, these things give us more income than we otherwise have. They also make us run around more and make us less happy. For that reason alone, I think something needs to be done about this. We have to force ourselves, as a collective, as a polity, to change our behavior. Pass legislation to do it. Every other rich country did that between 1979 and 2000. We think the Japanese are workaholics. They’re not workaholics. Compared to us, they work less than we do, yet 40 years ago they worked a heck of a lot more. They chose to cut back.

Knowledge@Wharton: Still, the productivity has to be relatively high for Japan’s economy to be so strong?

Hamermesh: Well, it is. But so are we. We’re an incredibly rich country. I wish people who were younger realized how well off they are compared to their parents or grandparents. It’s just very unfortunate. We want more dollars without thinking, are the dollars really going to make us happier?

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it possible to change our policies to acquire some of the benefits that other countries have?

Hamermesh:  I think it’s possible. But again, it takes a political will at a time in which it’s anathema to even think about raising taxes on anybody. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of trouble to change the rules so that people are mandated to take four weeks of vacation or to take a few more paid holidays. Other countries have done it. It didn’t just happen from the day the countries were born. They chose to do it. It’s a political issue, like the most important things in life. Economics feeds into it, but it requires political thought and political judgment.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do Americans complain more about time than people in other countries?

Hamermesh: That’s true. I think complaining is the American national pastime, not baseball. But the thing is, those who are complaining about the time as being scarce are the rich. People who are poor complain about not having enough money. I’m sympathetic to that. They’re stuck. The rich — if you want to stop complaining, give up some money. Don’t work so hard. Walk to work. Sleep more. Take it easy. I have no sympathy for people who say they’re too rushed for time. It’s their own darn fault.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s your expectation as we go forward?

Hamermesh: What’s the biggest economic change in the last two years? It’s the Trump tax cut at the end of 2017. What does that do? That gives more money after taxes to the rich and no more to the lower and middle class. What’s going to happen is the rich are going to feel more rushed for time because they have no more time but more income in their pocket. They will spend more time racing around and will complain more about how scarce time is. So yes, I see in the next few years an exacerbation of this kind of time divide.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does this also widen the divide between the haves and the have-nots in the business world?

Hamermesh: Absolutely. The guys at the top are getting more money in their pocket. They’re going to feel more and more they have to race around. The fellow down on the line is not going to feel it. I think it’s an increasing time divide that will contribute to an increasing social divide. It’s not just income inequality, it’s time inequality, which is very depressing.

Knowledge@Wharton: In one chapter, you talk about togetherness, which is a great topic. Tell us about it.

Hamermesh: It’s really fascinating. What do we mean by being together? If I’m sleeping in the same bed or room as my wife, are we together? Sort of. But we aren’t really interacting. You look at how much time people spend together really doing the same thing, really interacting, it’s a couple of hours a day. Most of our time we’re running around doing different things with lots of different people, but only [spending] a few hours with the same person each day.

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