Walking Turtles On A Leash

Scrounging for leisure time

I mean that four hours' work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit.

Bertrand Russell

Lady Glossop: Do you work, Mr. Wooster?

Bertie Wooster: What, work? As in honest toil, you mean? Hewing the wood and drawing the old wet stuff and so forth?

Lady Glossop: Quite. Bertie Wooster: Well... I've known a few people who worked. Absolutely swear by it, some of them.

P G Wodehouse


One of the first pieces of economic writing I read was Bertrand Russell's 1932 essay "In Praise Of Idleness" where he, as advertised, praised what we could make if only we had more time. Like Keynes thereafter, his theory was that in the future (ie now), we'd be spending far less time working and far more time lazing around.

I also remember doing a tiny bit of research when I was in college and learning how most of the major scientists, philosophers, inventors of the world in the generations past led a highly indolent life. Either through inherited wealth or patronage or slack provided by academic life, none seemed to live in a 9-5 type drudgery.

And modernity seems to have spectacularly failed at delivering this dream. Lords Russell and Keynes would definitely be sad and perhaps perplexed, as am I. Why does it feel like we're busier than ever?

First, are we actually working more than ever? It doesn't seem so.

An interesting note here is the divergence amongst the developed world (declining rapidly) vs the developing world (not).

So it seems we, at least the we in the western world, do work less than we've done before. But it does seem we're busier!

One double click here does seem to show that the folks with the most free time seem to be those with lesser education, in an interesting reversal of the Bertie Wooster trend from earlier in the century.

But the interesting part is that even the inverted U shaped curve for highly educated men and women are now comparable to life in idyllic 1965.

One possibility is that the nature of work has changed. While you might work the same hours, you now spread them across work and life times - answering emails in bed, and checking LinkedIn with morning tea.

But we did have a natural experiment of melding work and life to a large degree over the last year. And the agreement seems to be that combining the two didn't substantially decrease life satisfaction.

There's no shortage of survey based literature, but just one from Hong Kong seemed instructive.

A study conducted in April 2020 showed that over 80% of workers preferred at least partial WFH measures in place, with numbers varying in how many days a week that should be, suggesting a preference for a mixed mode of working. The most common reasons for this, shown, were more time to rest (72.2% strongly agree), decreased work related stress (63.8% strongly agree), and improvement in WLB (60.7% strongly agree).

Mostly we all quite liked working from home. Even those of us who wanted desperately to go back to office liked having the option to go back. At the margins we were much happier combining work and life than it would've seemed!

The second possibility is that our culture idolises "busy" as a status marker. Whereas in the Wodehouse novels I read as a child work was considered very much a four letter word, its the opposite these days.

In nineteenth-century Europe, having ample leisure time signified a person of high social status: one philosopher described the literary types in Paris around 1840, who had such an abundance of time that it was fashionable to walk a turtle on a leash through the arcades.

But that just means we should all be lying about being busy. God knows I've done it often enough. It shouldn't really be making us feel busier than ever. Now it might be that most others are not as happy to fib as me or have cognitive dissonance but it does seem far fetched.

A third possibility is that we think we're busier, but we're not.

Here I get to talk about one of my favourite new find. There is a Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford who have the biggest collection of time-use diaries in the world.

Analyses showed that people in many countries routinely overestimate the amount of time that they spend working — in the United States, by some 5–10% on average. But those who work longer hours tend to overestimate by the most: people who guess that they work 75-hour weeks, for example, can be over by more than 50%, and those of certain professions — teachers, lawyers, police officers — overestimate by more than 20%.

But has this changed over time? Not really. There have been substantial improvements in other aspects of life where we should've saved much more time.

Men had reduced the number of hours they spent on paid work, increased those in unpaid work and overall came out ahead, with just under 50 minutes more free time per day. Women were doing more paid work — again reflecting their movement into the workplace over the decades — and less unpaid work, producing little change overall.

So worst case we should be about the same, but the reality does seem to belie that we are uniquely worse at estimating today vs half a century ago.

A fourth possibility is that we've forgotten what leisure is.

As one indicative point, a piece of data that floored me - a 2010s dad spends more time with his kids than a 1960s mom.

In 1965, mothers spent a daily average of 54 minutes on child care activities, while moms in 2012 averaged almost twice that at 104 minutes per day. Fathers’ time with children nearly quadrupled – 1965 dads spent a daily average of just 16 minutes with their kids, while today’s fathers spend about 59 minutes a day caring for them.

And this is even more acute for the more educated parents. Remember, these are also the parents who work (slightly) more these days as we saw above.

College-educated moms spent an estimated 123 minutes daily on child care, compared with 94 minutes spent by less educated mothers. Fathers with a college degree spent about 74 minutes a day with their kids, while less educated dads averaged 50 minutes.

So if we work slightly more than in 1965 but we spend an extra 45 mins to an hour on childcare, that definitely cuts into the time we have.

(The one exception is France. They seem to be pretty chill about the whole thing. France was the only country that showed a decrease in mothers’ child care time.)

A complicating factor is that we do have more help with automation for home-work.

The results showed that women in 2010 were spending around 12 hours less per week on cooking, cleaning, laundry and other domestic work than women in 1965, and that had shifted towards more-sedentary pursuits such as using a computer.

But there's another point that I find interesting. Our hobbies seem to have changed over time. In the 1960s, the biggest hobbies were television, pop music and sports. Hobbies today, including social media or vlogging or writing, seem to have become a lot more performative. Building cars for fun is different to vlogging in the different pressures vlogging demands as a performative art.

One other dataset we have is diaries around the hobbies of British Civil Servants in 1960s. It showed how the number one was gardening, which I’m sure surprises everyone. Then came swimming, walking, golf and tennis. I tried to find what they do these days, but the only public dataset seems Twitter, which might be a case in favour of higher stress.

Thesis here is that having different hobbies is fun, but perhaps having hobbies to help folks level up in life can make leisure feel like work. This is especially true when leisure today doesn't come in big chunks but perhaps are filled with more stolen slices in between other things.

The paradox of having hundreds of choices is that even choosing amongst them can feel like work. But the busy-ness today doesn't seem to be from having too much Netflix to watch!

So what do we think?

I feel the fact that we spend more time doing home-work like childcare, and that a lot of us have effectively second or third careers (podcasts, newsletters, youtubes) does make our lives much busier. Its self imposed. Maybe we should try spending more time playing games and not streaming it on twitch? Or create switch-off times where we reduce alt-tab fever.

I feel the fact is maybe we didn't want to be Bertie after all. We can, should we so choose, walk a turtle down the street, but doing so would mean we would maybe not try to launch that coin, or create that brand, or find a company to angel invest, or check our messages for the tenth time this hour.