Three Theories for Why You Have No Time

Three Theories(ˈTHirē) for Why You Have No Time

Better technology means higher expectations, and higher expectations create more work.

By Derek Thompson

One of the truisms(ˈtro͞oˌizəm) of modern life is that nobody has any time. Everybody is busy, burned out, swamped, overwhelmed. So let’s try a simple thought experiment. Imagine that you came into possession(pəˈzeSHən) of a magical new set of technologies that could automate(ˈôdəˌmāt) or expedite(ˈekspəˌdīt) every single part of your job.

What would you do with the extra time? Maybe you’d pick up a hobby(ˈhäbē), or have more children, or learn to luxuriate(ˌləɡˈZHo͝orēˌāt, ˌləkˈSHo͝orēˌāt) in the additional leisure(ˈleZHər,ˈlēZHər). But what if I told you that you wouldn’t do any of those things: You would just work the exact same amount of time as before.

I can’t prove this, because I don’t know you. What I do know is that something remarkably(rəˈmärkəblē) similar to my hypothetical(ˌhīpəˈTHedək(ə)l) happened in the U.S. economy in the 20th century—not in factories, or in modern offices. But inside American homes.

The household economy of cooking, cleaning, mending(ˈmendiNG), washing, and grocery(ˈgrōs(ə)rē) shopping has arguably(ˈärgyo͞oəblē) changed more in the past 100 years than the American factory or the modern office. And its evolution(ˌevəˈlo͞oSHən) tells an illuminating(iˈlo͞oməˌnāt) story about why, no matter what work we do, we never seem to have enough time. In the 20th century, labor(ˈlābər)-saving household technology improved dramatically(drəˈmadəklē), but no labor appears to have been saved.

Technologically(ˌteknəˈläjək(ə)lē), the typical(ˈtipikəl) American home of 1900 wasn’t so different from the typical home of 1500. Bereft(bəˈreft) of modern equipment(əˈkwipmənt), it had no electricity(əˌlekˈtrisədē). Although some rich families had indoor plumbing(ˈpləmiNG), most did not. Family members were responsible for ferrying(ˈferē) each drop of water in and out of the house.

The following decades brought a bevy(ˈbevē) of labor-saving appliances(əˈplīəns). Air conditioning and modern toilets(ˈtoilit), for starters. But also refrigerators(rəˈfrijəˌrādər) and freezers(ˈfrēzər), electric irons(ˈīərn), vacuum(-yəm,ˈvakˌyo͞o(ə)m) cleaners, and dishwashers(-ˌwäSH-,ˈdiSHˌwôSHər).

These machines worked miracles. Electric stoves(stōv) made food prep(prep) faster. Automatic washers and dryers cut the time needed to clean a load of clothes. Refrigerators meant that housewives and the help didn’t have to worry about buying fresh food every other day.

Each of these innovations(ˌinəˈvāSHən) could have saved hours of labor. But none of them did.