Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Too Much Free Time?”
March 20, 2017
“The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother
about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Walking into Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut a week ago, I remarked to my son how surprised my grandparents would have been with the amount of free time people have today. We were there to pick up his middle daughter (my granddaughter) who was playing soccer. The place is immense – an Olympic-size pool, two hockey rinks, batting cages, squash and tennis courts, lacrosse fields, food courts, viewing stands and, of course, soccer fields – all housed in a 465,000 SF building, on a 33-acre campus that was once the world headquarters for the hair-coloring company Clairol. Hundreds of youngsters and oldsters were using the facilities – people with extra time on their hands, something rare 120 years ago.
In 1900, when my grandparents were young adults, the average person working in manufacturing spent 60 hours a week on the job. Farmers – 41% of the labor force – had longer hours. Forty percent of working women labored outside the home, many in factories where $4 for a 70-hour week was not unknown. Others worked as servants, for even less and with longer hours. About 80% of all jobs in 1900 required manual labor. Average annual income was about $457, a little less than one percent of what it is today.
Apart from 10-hour work days six days a week, family heads had to ensure a roof overhead and the putting of food on the table, activities that consumed most of their free time. Only 2% of homes had electricity, so labor-saving devices we take for granted – blenders, refrigerators, coffee makers and toasters – were unavailable. The U.S. fertility rate in 1900 was 3.7; it is now 1.8, the lowest ever recorded here. Life expectancy in 1900 was 46.3 years for men and 48.3 years for women. Today those numbers are 76.9 and 81.6 respectively. Except for those in cities or those who could afford horses, travel was difficult. Mass transportation – trains, trollies, ferries, steam boats, and a few subway systems – was available in some urban areas. As 1899 became 1900, there were about 8,000 cars in the U.S., many of which were not much faster than a horse. All were owned by the wealthy. Free time was a luxury, unknown to all but a few.
There was a leisure class in 1900, albeit small. Then, there were greater numbers of poor and a smaller middle class than today. Fifty-six percent of families lived in poverty. Today, the number is 13.5%. Wealth was more concentrated than today. According to census reports, there were 5,000 millionaires, or about 0.00007% of a population of 76 million. The sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of the wealthy constituted the leisure class. While some of those helped build schools, colleges, opera houses, museums and provided funds to protect the environment, others did little for themselves or mankind. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, in an amusing expiation of the phenomena, has young Edward Ferrar explain his torpidity at age nineteen and why he was unfit for the military, law or the church. He concludes: “I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.”
In comparing hours worked, life expectancy and time-saving consumer products and conveniences, there is a lot my grandparents would find unrecognizable today, even though they lived through a time that produced many of those changes. Today’s average household has just over two people, less than half the number in 1900. Our average workweek, at just under 40 hours, is a third less than it was. Life expectancy has risen by almost 50%. We are freer to go when and where we want, because we can afford to and technology allows it. There are 253 million cars on American roads today, almost one per person. Two percent of today’s population feeds the other ninety-eight percent. And, incidentally, many of those engaged in agriculture are illegal immigrants. The average age of retirement in the U.S. is 63, suggesting the average person will spend fifteen years in retirement. In 1900, death usually preceded retirement.
Microwave ovens and electric vacuums and have given people freedom from chores in the home. Cable TV and iPads provide entertainment, while smart phones make it easier to communicate. In 1900, in the U.S., only six hundred thousand homes had telephones. Today, there are as many cell phones as there are people – 328 million. Central heat and air conditioning add a level of comfort inconceivable back then.
But, have we lost something with our growing wealth and greater free time? In 1844, Alfred Vail, who was at the Baltimore Rail Road Station, sent a message back to Samuel Morse, who was at the U.S. Capital: “What hath God wrought?” We might ask the same question today. Has all this leisure time improved our lot? The short answer is yes, when we consider the many ways in which our lives are better – longevity, health care, comforts and communication. A college education is more widely available. Travel has widened our horizons, and time for athletics has improved our physical well-being.
But the long answer is not so straight forward. As a society (with thanks to the civil rights movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s), we are more accepting of those physically and culturally different from ourselves. But we have become less tolerant of those whose ideas do not conform to our own, as was seen at Middlebury College three weeks ago. We have gained knowledge, but have we lost wisdom? We have substituted government-centric compassion for individual caring, as Professor Robert Putnam wrote about in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Politically, we have moved away from the concept of a melting pot (E Pluribus Unum) to become a salad bowl of distinct and separable identities, and we have become more polarized. Children mature physically as fast as they ever did, but with a lessened sense of personal responsibility and accountability. There has been a rise in drug and alcohol abuse and recently in opioid usage, especially in small towns and cities. We live in an environment where the young know how to use the internet, but fail to understand the consequences of posting photos and videos that others might use to their detriment, as nude photos of female marines circulating around the internet show.
We are blessed to live in this age, where the poor live better than the middle class did 100 years ago, where our homes keep us comfortable in all seasons, where we can see who is knocking on our front door from 3000 miles away, where disease is better combatted and where labor-saving devices give us time and energy for leisure activities. Because of the time-saving products produced by those who came before, we have hours more for ourselves. We have the time to improve ourselves, in a way inconceivable to our grandparents (and their parents and grandparents). But, have we used that time wisely? Are we improving our minds, or do we spend too much time in front of video and TV screens? Are we suitably involved with our families, friends and in our communities? Individually, we must answer these questions. Work we must, if we want a roof over our heads and food on the table. Aristotle once said (allegedly!): “The end of labor is to gain leisure.” To the extent that is true, the Genie of progress has granted us our wish. We have been provided the opportunity. It is our responsibility to use wisely the free time we now have.
On balance, though, Margaret’s great-great grandparents would be pleased she is able to pursue other activities, including indoor soccer, on a cold March afternoon at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut.