In 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay with some worries for his grandchildren’s future. It was just a year after Black Tuesday, in the midst of the Great Depression, but the influential economist wasn’t concerned his descendents would live in squalor or starve to death. He was concerned about the mountains of free time they would need to fill.
To Keynes, the future seemed clear: technological innovations would lead to increased efficiency, our quality of life would skyrocket, and the work week would dwindle to 15 hours as we figured out how to spread the remaining labour evenly across the population. Man would be faced with his final, most serious problem: “how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
Eighty-some years later, an abundance of leisure has not become the urgent problem Keynes envisioned. Despite wondrous technological advances, we are busier than ever. Work has become more efficient, yet we remain overwhelmed. What went wrong and how can we fix it?
It’s a question Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte considers in Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has a Minute. The book delves into what Schulte, with the instincts of a horror writer, calls the Overwhelm—the claustrophobic sense of being constantly behind, scrambling to squeeze an infinite to-do list into an ever-shrinking day.
For well-educated, white-collar workers like Schulte, this is a distinctly modern problem. Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in America were much less likely to work long hours than low-paid workers. Today, high-earners are twice as likely to overwork, while blue-collar workers suffer from reduced, part-time hours. Logging 15-hour days has simultaneously become a sign of status—something to brag about—and a pathology. In Canada, a survey found that 90% of respondents felt high levels of “role overload,” as they were pushed to do too much at once.
As a full-time journalist and mother of two, Schulte is intimately familiar with the personal characteristics and subtle terrors of the Overwhelm. Her book is both an investigation into the phenomenon and a memoir of an overburdened life, as Schulte wings around town finishing assignments, dropping off kids, picking up groceries and, well, trying to write a book.
One of Schulte’s chief findings is that the most time-starved individuals on the planet are working mothers. While men spend more time taking care of the kids and doing housework than their parents did, they still put in about half the hours at home as women do. And since the mid-1990s, the numbers haven’t moved forward an inch. The effects of this unequal distribution of labour are obvious: working mothers spend the day at the office, then race home for their second shift taking care of the kids. Leisure time evaporates.
This isn’t just a minor bummer, but a genuine crisis. Play is an important part of what it means to be human, an activity that builds complex, flexible brains. Schulte cites an experiment in which young rats were put in cages with adults, instead of with other young, playful rats. The brains of rats denied play resembled those rat brains with a damaged prefrontal cortex. A Health Canada report found that overwork has made people sick, depressed, anxious and unproductive. They estimate that, in 2001, overwork cost businesses and the health-care system $12 billion. “These workloads are not sustainable over the long term,” the study warned.
Throughout Overwhelmed, Schulte looks for bright spots that could point toward a more leisure-filled future. She meets with families learning to divide chores more fairly, hangs out with stay-at-home-dad groups, and visits offices with innovative policies for flexible hours, from inviting babies into the workplace to actively discouraging late evenings.
As Schulte enumerates the various strategies for gaining leisure, the idea of relaxing begins to sound exhausting in its own right. Schulte visits a “play coach” who greets her with a pink plastic pig. “Taking a shower with a pig every morning is like deciding, ‘Today is going to be a good day. A playful day,’” says the bubbly coach. She visits the WoMoBiJos—Working Mother with Big Jobs—who assert their right to spare time and confidently say things like, “I don’t describe my life as overwhelming. I see it as deeply rich and complex.”
By the time she takes a trapeze class with a group of women called Mice at Play, the idea of such highly organized leisure time begins to sound like yet another chore. Here the perfect mother/worker isn’t just the person who gets her kids into Mandarin class and finishes all her assignments on time, but also schedules in her weekly trapeze class.
Ultimately, Schulte’s most interesting and useful recommendations aren’t the self-helpy suggestions to carry around a notebook or make time to “think about what is most important,” but the systematic changes. In one chapter, Schulte travels to Denmark, where she watches as a Danish father leaves work early to make dinner for the kids while his wife goes to her favourite exercise class—all during the hours the typical American breadwinners would still be at the office. In Denmark, Schulte reports, the standard workweek is 37 hours, and flexibility is the norm. Perhaps most impressive, Danish husbands do nearly as much housework and childcare as their wives. In just 40 years, the leisure gap between men and women dropped from four hours to just 45 minutes—a remarkable transformation, with dads going from absent wage earners to engaged stroller pushers in a single generation.
Schulte’s visit to Denmark is evidence that overworking isn’t some immutable feature of modern western life. The Danes don’t enjoy more leisure because they’re a fundamentally relaxed, freewheeling, equitable people, but because they get long parental leaves, universal childcare, paid days to care for children, and—crucially—they are encouraged to actually use them. With the right policies, the Overwhelm can be overcome. Then we can start considering the Keynesian problem of living wisely and agreeably and well.